I Stopped Making New Year’s Resolutions—and It Was the Best Decision I Ever Made
How are those "new year, new me" resolutions going? That's what we thought. Here's a better approach for happiness and lasting change.
The last time I made a New Year’s resolution, it was January 2016, when I was the editor-in-chief of Women’s Health. I wrote my resolution as a “Dear John” letter to the phrase “bikini body,” assuring readers we’d no longer be using it on our covers or in the magazine—because, in a truth that shockingly wasn’t accepted by the mainstream media at the time (but is actually a complete no duh), every body is a bikini body. Being “bikini-body-ready,” a concept that hailed back to the dawn of the magazine and so many others, was more than suggesting otherwise. Quite grossly.
Personally, I stopped making resolutions when I was much younger. Maybe because I grew up Catholic, resolutions struck me as confessional. Not fun, gossip-y confessional, but literally, a la: Confession is tomorrow—what am I going to say to the priest? It stressed me out. What did I have to “confess to” this week? That I’d taunted my sister to supreme upset by insisting I’d gotten a job at Claire’s Boutique at the age of 14? That I’d been sent to my room for performing a Michael Jackson toes-on-pointe move 20 times at the dinner table? As a well-behaved kid with no major crimes to report, I felt forced to find something for which to self-flagellate.
Which is sort of how resolutions feel—and not just for me. Indeed, early Christians used the new year as an opportunity to review their mistakes and look for fixes. And unfortunately, in the past decade or two, the “mistake” that’s needed fixing, if you listen to the onslaught of “new year, new you” chatter, has become you—your entire being or, at the very least, your body. It needs a new diet! A new gym! New clothes! Wrinkly-neck products! A new butt, perhaps? When you think about it, this message is truly the antithesis of happiness.
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The harm in a simple resolution
This type of “new year, new you” chatter isn’t just not motivational—it’s demoralizing and can even be dangerous. I dug into the research for a big January report, “New Year, New Eating Disorder,” for my recently launched mental health lifestyle platform, Mental. While that investigation focused specifically on the harm of pro-dieting, anti-obesity messaging on eating disorders (EDs)—it doesn’t just exacerbate them, it can actually cause them—it’s not just people with EDs who are at risk.
The “new year, new you” theme that’s become synonymous with resolutions—and taken over traditional media, social media, advertising and even digital pages from the Cleveland Clinic and the National Institutes of Health—pits us against the very people we need most: ourselves.
How resolutions erode our mental health
Courtesy Amy Keller Laird
Katherine Metzelaar, a registered dietitian nutritionist, doesn’t typically recommend resolutions. “They imply, in the way they’re framed, that there is something fundamentally wrong with you. Resolutions have become pretty toxic and black and white,” says Metzelaar, who founded Bravespace Nutrition, a Seattle-based practice that provides nutritional therapy to people dealing with EDs and body-image issues. And, as she told Mental for our report, they “can trigger people’s perfectionistic tendencies.”
As it turns out, we’re a lot more perfectionistic than we used to be. One study found a nearly 20% overall increase in perfectionism in college students between 1989 and 2016. Perfectionism is also associated with mental health conditions including OCD and anxiety, and as a general trait, it can mentally wear down anyone and make it hard to maintain a positive attitude.
Speaking of which, we’re not doing so great mentally in the first place. The first year of COVID ushered in a 25% increase in depression and anxiety around the globe, according to the World Health Organization, and we haven’t exactly rebounded. In 2021, 76% of U.S. workers reported at least one symptom of a mental health condition, an increase of 17 percentage points in just two years, per the Department of Health and Human Services. In November 2022, around 31% of U.S. adults claimed symptoms of anxiety disorder, and 24%, depressive disorder. And the American Psychological Association’s 2022 Stress in America Report practically reads like a dystopian novel, citing “a battered American psyche, facing a barrage of external stressors that are mostly out of personal control,” with 27% of people so stressed on most days that they cannot function.
Read that again: They cannot function. And yet, because it’s January, it’s time to remake our entire selves. Let’s go big! Let’s work our butts off! (So they’re perfectly perky in profile, as good butts are supposed to be.)
What about let’s rest? Let’s rejuvenate? Let’s … heal?
John Norcross, PhD, is one of the foremost researchers on—and biggest believers in—New Year’s resolutions, and even he suggests “giving yourself a break” as a deserving goal. “Americans tend to be quite puritanical in resolutions,” the distinguished professor and chair of psychology at the University of Scranton in Pennsylvania told Mental. Resolutions, he said, are “largely framed as what I’m going to deny or force. It’s restrict, deny, control instead of providing yourself with whatever the love is.”
And yet, these deny-or-force resolutions—also known as avoidance-based resolutions—are significantly less effective than approach-oriented ones, per a 2020 study published in PLoS One.
Restrict, deny, fail, repeat
The idea of denial is just … so … depleting, isn’t it? We’ve all had to give up so much over the past few years. And yet, here we are, doing it again. According to a Statista poll, our top three 2023 resolutions are to exercise more, eat healthier and lose weight.
The first two seem additive at first read, but when you boil it down, are they all actually about restricting and denying? I asked Rachel Goldman, PhD, clinical assistant professor in the department of psychiatry at NYU Grossman School of Medicine, whether she believes “eating healthy” and “exercising more” are weight loss—with its restricting and denying—in disguise.
“This is an interesting question, because I think when most people initially think of eating healthier or exercising more, their end goal is weight/body-related,” she says. “But I often see a shift, either after working with a cognitive behavioral therapist like myself, once someone is in a place of body acceptance, or after they get into the new routine and start seeing the other benefits, like improved energy, focus, concentration, sleep and mood.”
Goldman says this highlights the difference between intrinsic and extrinsic motivation when it comes to changing your behavior long-term. “Most people initially set goals and make behavioral changes based off of extrinsic motivating factors,” she explains, “but what keeps them going is the intrinsic motivating factors.”
Extrinsic motivation, to be clear, is when you do something to get a reward or to dodge punishment. On the other hand, when you’re intrinsically motivated, you find the behavior rewarding on its own. Remember those less-effective avoidance-based resolutions I mentioned earlier? One might argue they’re often made due to extrinsic pressure.
And whether it’s societal stigma to look a certain way or a partner’s constant nudges to hit the gym, external factors such as motivation to make health-related changes eventually cause a person’s belief that they can complete a goal to fall off a cliff, research shows. A study in the journal Frontiers in Psychology further suggests that tapping into people’s values is key to truly inspiring “health-promoting behaviors.”
Being less resolute and more intentional
The idea of “new year, new you”? Hardly intrinsic. Or value-based. As the founder of the first mental health platform that encourages women to accept and embrace their mental health for what it is—a normal part of life that neither defines you nor determines your destiny—I’m not going to pick apart my every flaw come January. Which isn’t to say that I, and collectively we, can’t strive to better ourselves. Of course we can. But to keep ourselves sane, we need to change the frame.
Back in the day, when resolutions first became a thing, they were far more community-based than individualistic. Now? “We don’t think, I’m gonna be a better neighbor or I’m going to volunteer more,” says Norcross. We all know how we got here, with modern society’s focus on me-not-we. But we also know, even scientifically, that doing things for others is good for our mental health. It brings us back to values, and that’s the reason Metzelaar recommends setting intentions instead of resolutions. She suggests asking yourself this: What would I like to intend to do based on my values in life? Am I acting out of alignment with them?
Putting goals into perspective
Courtesy Amy Keller Laird
Another concern with resolutions is that we tend to go super-lofty, often setting ourselves up to fail—and then feel like failures. Here’s a mind-blower: It’s actually a legit resolution to simply maintain a current goal. “I wish more people would make them like that rather than these grandiose ideas,” says Norcross. “They’re confusing wishes with resolutions.”
If you do go big, also make sure to go small—because big things get done best when they’re broken down into micro steps, with an action plan to move things along. Even basic to-do lists are associated with what’s called planning fallacy, like the old adage “biting off more than you can chew.” We tend to underestimate how much time it will take to finish a task. Put that on a grand scale, such as a year-long resolution, and, well, you see where this is heading: to the unfinished line.
This is why it’s important, if you do set a resolution, to jot down a specific plan for carrying it out. Because having a goal hovering over your head without a clear path forward can lead to intrusive thoughts, according to a study in the Journal of Personality and Social Psychology. Not helpful for those of us—most of us—beleaguered by other stressors.
One of the authors of that study, researcher E.J. Masicampo, was interviewed by the Harvard Business Review. He suggested that reminding yourself why the things you’re doing are important or valuable to you can be the motivation you need to stick with something. “When what you’re doing is stuff you want to do,” he said, “you’ll end up relying less on tricks and devices to get it done and go more out of your way to do it.”
Allowing your needs to evolve
When you love what you’re doing, I’d venture, you’re also willing to evolve your intentions as the year goes on. This is probably the biggest reason I don’t set resolutions. I’m a person of everyday action. What do I need to do today? This makes room, on other days, for mental well-being: What do I need to do to feel better?
In January and February—when the days are cold and dark and holiday anticipation has turned to exhaustion—what I need isn’t to push-push-push. What I need is to feel less pressure. To chill. To regenerate. To incorporate moments of joy into my days. Which, I believe, makes me all the more capable of achieving big things when I’m ready. With an intention of “I will allow myself time for regeneration” comes the future intention of conquering bigger-picture, bigger-purpose things. As Norcross puts it, wouldn’t it be great if more people said yes to something that’s life-affirming?
Perhaps we should move New Year’s from the start of the Gregorian calendar—that’s the actual reason, after all, we clink champagne flutes in January—to March, when the Babylonians celebrated the yearly transition as part of nature’s re-bloom and re-beautification. At the very least, let’s reinstate the ancient Roman tradition in January of honoring Janus, the god of change and beginnings, by giving friends good wishes … and figs! I love a good fig.
Sticking with it—for real this time
A year after I made that Women’s Health resolution to stop using the term bikini body, my resolve was tested. We’d booked a celebrity for the following January’s cover who, after our photo shoot, published a book about none other than sculpting a bikini body. I asked if she’d consider talking about how her version of a bikini body encompassed all bodies. To no avail. Leaving my choices to: A) run the cover, feel like a schmuck, or B) not run the cover, put an unknown model on the January/February issue (one of our bestselling) and risk my job.
I hemmed and hawed and hemmed some more, but eventually chose the latter. We picked up a model image from one of the brand’s international editions and went to press.
I don’t deserve a Pulitzer, but it was the right thing to do. And the reason I was able to do it, as the experts say of all fruitful resolutions, is because it aligned with my values and my own intrinsic desire to do my part, however small, in helping expand public perception of what a healthy body is.
Whatever your intentions for 2023, let them expand, rather than narrow, your horizons. And let them also expand your image of yourself—physically, emotionally and, most important, mentally.
Amy Keller Laird is the founder of Mental, a mental health lifestyle platform for women, and an editorial executive with 25 years’ experience covering mental health, beauty, wellness and culture.
- Katherine Metzelaar, RDN, registered dietitian nutritionist and founder of Bravespace Nutrition
- John Norcross, PhD, distinguished professor and chair of psychology at the University of Scranton in Pennsylvania
- Rachel Goldman, PhD, clinical assistant professor in the department of psychiatry at NYU Grossman School of Medicine
- Mental: “New Year, New Eating Disorder”
- Psychosomatic Medicine: “Treatment Outcomes and Trajectories of Change in Patients Attributing Their Eating Disorder Onset to Anti-obesity Messaging“
- American Psychological Association: “Perfectionism Among Young People Significantly Increased Since 1980s, Study Finds”
- World Health Organization: “COVID-19 pandemic triggers 25% increase in prevalence of anxiety and depression worldwide”
- HHS.gov: “U.S. Surgeon General Releases New Framework for Mental Health & Well-Being in the Workplace”
- Frontiers in Psychology: “Evaluating behavior change factors over time for a simple vs. complex health behavior”
- Journal of Personality and Social Psychology: “Consider It Done! Plan Making Can Eliminate the Cognitive Effects of Unfulfilled Goals”
- Harvard Business Review: “Why We Continue to Rely on (and Love) To-Do Lists”