MUNICH — After tallying the results of Santa's wish list comes the next step: wishful thinking. With the turning of the calendar comes another New Year full of hopes and expectations as the list of resolutions pile up. It's like closing-down sales: Everything must go, everything must change. Around the world, the vows look similar: Eat more vegetables, do more sports, be kinder to your loved ones, walk the dog more often. Others want to learn Spanish, learn how to ballroom dance or fly to Easter Island. And yet, declaring that there's a will does not necessarily (or usually) mean there's a way. Studies show that two-thirds of resolutions don't even survive until the end of January.
"There's practically nobody who has never made a New Year's resolution," says Dieter Frey, a social psychologist at the Ludwig-Maximilians-University in Munich. "Some have very strict plans, and there are those who don't take it that seriously. But we've found that 30-40% do have real willful intentions to change something." Such people have ideal scenarios, and yet there always comes the moment when they understand, painfully, that the reality doesn't necessarily conform. If you keep looking at yourself in the mirror, at first you might not notice your belly growing. But at some point, it becomes impossible to deny that large space between aspiration and reality.
The resolutions to change something, for the better, often fail because they lack either consequence or regularity. A whole industry is built on the fact that people keep aiming for the same things, every year, but just don't quite get there. Diet and cooking books are perpetual bestsellers. Memberships to the gym get reactivated. Vicious circles keep coming around. "People don't think things through," says Frey. "And when they don't see any success, they give up quickly."
Instead, people could just decide to follow the rules, make tiny steps, but continuously: It's better to change 100 things just a little bit rather than overturn a single habit completely.
There is of course one crucial element: motivation. "You have to really want it, put your lifeblood in it, or have some sort of psychological strain," says Frey. "The resolutions must be extremely important for you, or you'll end up quitting."
Finally, you need a healthy dash of pragmatism. Is the wished-for overseas travel realistic in terms of timing and finances? When can I squeeze in the language course? Will I find time to go jogging? Rewarding oneself helps, reminders and open statements too. "Without a concrete plan, New Year's resolutions have no chance," says Frey.
So, alas, the mother of all good intentions for the New Year: be resolute about your resolutions.