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Mental health and society

 Why it is okay to ‘fail’ New Years resolutions

23 February 2024

Undergraduate psychology student Lily Maddock is currently on placement at CUBRIC, where she is researching individuals with schizophrenia-associated copy number variants and assessing how they affect cortical network connectivity using MEG and MRI.

She discusses how we need to be realistic about our new year’s resolutions and what we can do to make sure they don’t have a negative impact on our mental health.

During my placement I see participants with copy number variants that often intensify their struggles with developmental and learning difficulties. As part of our psychological questioning, we hear about participants’ wellbeing within their last three months. I always thought this to be interesting as the time of the year can have a great influence on one’s mental health. As such, I see the beginning of a new year as particularly challenging. Christmas and family events can be difficult with budgeting, family relationships or missing loved ones, New Years can too initiate difficult feelings of lack of accomplishments. And finally, the beginning of a year fostered with colder and darker days can harness your activeness and wellbeing causing ‘winter blues’. I therefore chose to write about the New Year, and its resolutions, as a guide to limit the pressure and impact they can have on one’s mental health. Throughout my blog I have also looked into a few social psychology theories that I have learnt on my degree. They can help in strengthening our understanding in why we may be feeling or acting a certain way.

The beginning of a new year can offer a fresh start for new goals and resolutions. For some people New Year’s resolutions can offer guidelines and motivation to achieve goals but, for many, it can be the beginning for low self-esteem, pressure and anxiety. And with that, the reality is that over 90% of New Year’s resolutions will be abandoned within just a few months.

Expectations and unrealistic goals

We can hold vast expectations in our New Year’s resolutions due to the ‘fresh start effect’, which sees an increase of motivation at milestones, such as a new year. The marking of a new year creates a divide between hiccups or failures and paths a clean, linear path to a goal. But when the clock hits midnight we are still faced with last year’s difficulties or challenges. Behaviour change is not direct and involves slipups and this mindset offers unrealistic ideals. Change is difficult! Unexpected instances or mistakes are bound to happen and that is okay. Try to be forgiving and understanding with yourself.

Set-backs are expected

Researchers found that our tolerance to mistake making positively affected our organisational learning and performance. To achieve goals, we need to pick ourselves up from set-backs and keep going. If we’re unable to keep going, we begin to feel helpless.

Learned helplessness arises when we feel a situation is uncontrollable. If we set realistic goals and become accustomed to mistakes, we can attain a sense of control which can make goal achieving more manageable. Vulnerability and set-backs are helpful! They can help reassess goals, lead you down new paths and ensure greater self-efficacy. You haven’t failed, you just haven’t finished yet.

So how do we go about achieving a goal?

We need to ensure our goals are actually achievable. Another reason why New Year’s resolutions becomes encapsulating and almost impossible to complete a goal is because they’re not attainable. A useful way to make objectives more achievable and limit the chance of ‘false hope syndrome’ is to use S.M.A.R.T goals. False hope syndrome occurs when expectations are unrealistic and can cause low self-esteem and worsening mood. The S.M.A.R.T guide suggests that goals need to be Specific, Measurable, Achievable, Relevant and Time-bound. A realistic guide can allow for an easier transition into starting your goals.

We need to consider why we’re aiming to achieve a goal. Connecting your goal to ‘why’ offers it more meaning and reason. Rotter’s locus of control theory aligned that behaviour is dependent on your value of outcome in which the greater the value the more likely behaviour change is to stick. Choosing a New Year’s resolution that is mindful of your circumstance and meaningful to you will offer more motivation in completing your goal.

Holding yourself accountable can be beneficial in achieving goals. Accountability allows you to be mindful of your progress, account for steps that need to be taken and set deadlines. Accountability could be achieved by making target lists, using goal-trackers or by telling someone about your goal. Studies show that having an accountability partner can increase your success by 95%.

Ensure your resolution prioritises your mental health. Attaining goals can feel greatly overwhelming and its essential that we can separate our end goal from the steps to achieving it. Achieving a goal is a progress, breaking goals down in to easier and more manageable achievements can make the journey feel more rewarding as we celebrate each step and limit a sense of pressure. Know when to ask for help or reassurance. Achieving goals with friends or family can offer support and motivation. Even just having someone to relay your achievements to or share your commitment to a goal can increase your success, as shown in this study. As well as this, it is important to practise self-compassion. Ensure you are kind to yourself in recognising your accomplishments but also your set-backs. Practising mindfulness will allow for greater self-efficacy, which will offer a smooth path to gaining your goal. Being mindful of your well-being can allow you to recognise when you need to take breaks or re-evaluate your goals and can ensure your taking it one day at a time. Overall, your mental health is key in health wellness and organisation which are important when reaching goals. Look after yourself.

The beginning of a new year can be a particularly difficult time for many, and it manifests itself with the peak of seasonal affective disorder which can cause greater depressive episodes. Darker days and limited sunlight mean it is okay and normal to be feeling low. This is why it is essential to be forgiving to our hiccups and recognise that achieving goals may be especially hard right now. Don’t hold too much power to New Year’s resolutions, a goal can be attained at any point throughout the year and it’s more important to allow ourselves to protect our mental health.