Why? How can we feel so strongly about a goal when we think about it in the abstract, then utterly disregard it in the heat of the moment? As a happiness researcher, I find that the answer to any question is usually "happiness," and I would argue that the solution to this annual phenomenon is one particular aspect of happiness: meaning.
With that in mind, if you want to infuse New Year's resolutions with meaning and -- and dramatically increase their chances of success -- it's worth drawing on some lessons from the science of happiness.
Nielsen recently published a list of 2015's top 10 New Year's resolutions
, and more than any other type of goal, those directly related to happiness dominated, representing five out of the 10. One of the most popular goals on Nielsen's list is enjoying life to the fullest (endorsed by 28% of respondents) and experiencing more pleasure out of everyday life.
-- Spending more time with family and friends (19%)
-- Having new experiences, such as learning something new (14%)
-- Traveling more (14%)
-- Reading more (12%)
These types of goals tap into a different aspect of happiness -- the kind that comes from doing something we consider to be important and valuable in its own right. While pleasure and meaning are valuable to psychological well-being in their own ways, meaning has a special perk that makes it particularly valuable when it comes to goal-setting: It enhances motivation.
Work by Adam Grant
illustrates this phenomenon. Grant studied people who do what one might imagine is an inherently meaningful job: raising scholarship money for students in need. What he found is that people who were given a strong sense that their work was meaningful worked 171% harder than people who did not receive a "meaning intervention."
In essence, it is not enough to do something that sounds important; that importance needs to be front and center. People work much harder when they have a powerful sense of why.
You might think "OK, so I'll just pick the more meaningful goals." However, just because a goal has the potential to be meaningful doesn't mean that it is meaningful for the individual who holds it.
According to one of Time's top 10 list of most commonly failed resolutions
, even potentially meaning-oriented New Year's resolutions fail. Their list included a number of popular, potentially meaning-oriented goals, including "learning something new," "spending more time with family," "traveling to new places," and a couple of other relevant goals that did not appear on Nielson's top 10: "volunteering," and "being less stressed."
So why aren't these goals working?
One important factor is why the goal is set. Take "spending more time with family" as an example. When I first arrived in my tenure track position in 2011, I spent many late nights at my office working. My husband urged me to come home earlier, to be there for dinner with the kids every night and to leave my work at the office. I agreed with him on principle, but in practice, I always had so much work to do that I rarely chose to come home in time for dinner.
I had a goal to spend more time with my family, but I set the goal because my husband asked me to. Because I was also concerned about my career, my heart was not fully in it. Without full commitment, behavior change is rarely successful.
In contrast, post-tenure, I decided for myself that I wanted a clearer balance and boundaries between work and home. It was my idea this time.
Through the lens of my own motivation, my path was clear. I saw problems with how I had managed my time before that, once fixed, allowed me to be much more efficient. The path to my goal of balancing work and life is not easy, but at least now I have a real shot (I'm 7 months post-tenure now, and still going strong).
So, what steps can you take to help fortify your New Year's resolution against the perils of everyday life?
Choose resolutions that are meaningful to you -- not someone else. Some goals have the potential to be meaningful to you, and others do not. Avoid those that sound cool but which don't really have a personal investment for you. If it's something you feel like you "should" do, it's over before you even start.
Create a way to "see" the results of your goal. Your goal needs to lead to something tangible that you deem worthwhile. It's not enough for it to be "good" in the abstract (for example, getting fit just to be fit). Like the employees who learned that their work was meaningful by speaking to someone it helped, you can set outside indicators that your work has a purpose.
Want to spend more time with family? Start a project together (for example: my husband bought an old car for him to work on with my 16-year-old daughter). Want to volunteer more? Seek a leadership opportunity in a volunteer organization, which will help you see the larger impact of the organization. Want to get fit? Sign up for a marathon.
Figure out the ways you might try to talk yourself out of it and address them proactively. When I was staying in my office until 9 p.m., I always told myself that working hard to do well at my job was serving my family better than going home would. This was a story I told myself to feel better for failing to meet my goal, and it only worked because as I told it to myself, I ignored my reasons for going home, which would have been very compelling if only I had given them the time of day.
Figure out what stories you tell yourself and decide in advance how you will counteract them -- again, using meaning! The meaningfulness of your goal can refute your stories about why it's OK to slack off today.
As for me, I could keep tweaking and editing all night, but if I stay in the office any longer, I will miss the chance to read my baby stories before bed, and that is important to me.
All this underscores the reality that successful goal pursuit is hard. But meaning provides some simple ways to give yourself a booster shot this New Year.