Are New Year’s resolutions worth it?

Stuart Miles /
Stuart Miles /

You know the folklore: lots and lots of people make New Year’s resolutions. Few really have their heart in it, and even fewer succeed. Therefore, don’t even bother, says the common wisdom.

Sounds like a good excuse for complacency. But there’s reason to rethink the common wisdom.

True, some research shows high failure rates for New Year’s resolutions. But others show resolvers to be at least moderately successful at making a variety of changes, such as improving study habits, cutting down on cigarettes, and exercising more. A 2002 study by John Norcross and his colleagues at the University of Scranton, for example, recruited 159 “resolvers” and 123 “non-resolvers” (people who were interested in making a specific change but had not yet made a definite decision to do so). They followed the two groups over a six-month time span, interviewing them periodically by phone.

The result? Seventy-one percent of the resolvers had succeeded in maintaining their goals in the first two weeks, compared to 51% of the non-resolvers. Those percentages, of course, dropped over time. By the end of 6 months, 46% of the resolvers were still hanging in there, compared to only 4% of the non-resolvers.

Nobody knows, of course, just how much of an impact the telephone calls themselves made. It’s reasonable to assume that people would be more motivated to stick to their resolutions if they knew someone was going to call and ask! (Indeed, the researchers found that by the end of the study, many of the non-resolvers became resolvers.) But that’s why it’s important to compare the two groups. Both got the phone calls. But the group with the higher success rate — more than 10 times higher — was the one in which people had made a conscious determination to change.

It would have been nice if the researchers distinguished types of resolutions from each other. One would expect it to be more difficult, for example, to change well-entrenched (and potentially addictive!) habits than to add new ones. But the simple bottom line may be this: if you want to change something about your life, you’re much more likely to succeed if you actually make a resolution to do so. That’s far better than merely wishing and waiting.

Sounds obvious, right? But so does the more defeatist common wisdom. That’s why we still need research to sort it all out.

This isn’t a paean to human willpower. How many times have American children been told by their parents, “You can do anything if you just put your mind to it”? That’s a gross exaggeration.

Human willpower can be weak. Another line of research shows how concentrated acts of will actually deplete brain resources, making us more susceptible to temptation immediately afterward.

But that’s not to say that an act of will isn’t involved when change is needed. Sometimes, we just need to be smarter about it. Start smaller. Make goals realistic and measurable. Figure out ways to avoid temptation in the first place.

And for Christians: whatever your goals for self-improvement, align them with your goals for discipleship. It’s one thing to say, “I want to lose weight so I can get back into my skinny jeans.” You have complete freedom to do that. But it’s another thing to say, “I want to take better care of the body God gave me and stop filling it with junk.”

We need to exercise willpower in accordance with the work of the Holy Spirit. It’s not either-or, but both-and. That’s not to make God’s Spirit into a mere willpower-booster. But it is by the Spirit, and in the fellowship of a Spirit-led community, that we learn to want what God wants.

So go ahead. Ask what God wants you to do. And resolve to do it, with the Spirit’s help.