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NEW YEAR, NEW YOU - Experts suggest approach-oriented goals

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New Year Res graphic

By Chris Edwards

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Blame it on societal convention or chalk it up to the empty calendar that a new year presents, but a healthy percentage of Americans still embrace New Year’s resolutions.

A survey conducted by Forbes Health/One Poll in Oct. 2023 found that 38.5% of all U.S. adults set resolutions each year, while 59% of those aged 18-34 set them. Common goals typically involve dieting, exercising and saving money. For 2024, a consumer insights survey conducted by Statista found that goals of a financial aim are top of the mind of most resolution-making Americans.

The poll found that one in four American adults aspires to reduce the amount of money they spend in the coming year on living expenses, such as food and energy. The Forbes poll, however, found that fitness was chief in the minds of respondents, with 48% of them making improved fitness a chief goal over 38% who replied that they wish to improve their financial situations.

Of those who were polled, the findings revealed that, overall, 80% were confident in their ability to reach their goals, while six percent lack that confidence.

The reason why many people do make new year resolutions, according to one expert, owes to the idea of a second chance. Dennis Buttimer, who serves as a facilitator at a cancer wellness center, was quoted in an article on the topic that a new year “offers a blank slate – an opportunity to get things right.”

“When we set New Year’s resolutions, we are utilizing a very important concept called self-efficacy, which means that by virtue of aspiring to a goal and following through on it, I have a sense of control over what’s happening in my life,” Buttimer said.

The majority of resolution-makers may feel pressured to set a New Year’s resolution, according to the Forbes poll, which stated that 61.7% of respondents expressed such. However, that same polling found that more than 90% of resolutions are abandoned within a few months, as respondents admitted to previous resolution-making behavior and outcomes.

One recent peer-reviewed study that involved a large-scale experiment on New Year’s resolutions found that participants with approach-oriented goals were significantly more successful with following through than those who undertook avoidance-oriented goals (58.9% vs. 47.1%).

Goals, of course, can be classified under either category. Approach-oriented goals are ones where the objective is to move toward a desired outcome, for example if one aspires to be more talkative in social situations or improve grades. Avoidance goals, on the other hand, involve moving away from an undesired state, such as cutting down on alcohol consumption or ending procrastination.

The reason why resolutions in the new year might be so tough for many to keep has to do with neuroscience, according to Buttimer.

“If you don’t have a structure in place to keep you motivated, the behavior you are engaging in will tend to trail off,” he said.

The beginning of something new triggers a powerful neuro-hormone in the brain called dopamine. Dopamine is what controls the brain’s reward and pleasure centers, as well as regulating emotional responses. Although, initially, dopamine levels might be high in starting a goal, they eventually drop.

Buttimer recommended seeking support from others in the name of keeping goals going, and creating a reward system, as well as setting short-term goals, with rewards for meeting them.

The year 2024 is unknown, unchartered territory for all of us at this time, so if you have goals, have compassion for yourself and keep trying.

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