You are here

Why Our Brains Love Making (and Breaking) Resolutions


It's estimated that more than half of us make New Year's resolutions. While setting a positive resolution can be a catalyst for great change, most of us know that our best intentions rarely last past February. But yet, each year the majority of us continue to set them. Turns out that our need to set New Year's resolutions is hardwired into our brains.

It all comes down to the human brain not liking to be in a state of emotional conflict or imbalance, says Joshua Klapow, a clinical psychologist and associate professor in the School of Public Health at the University of Alabama at Birmingham. Conflict or imbalance can be physical, such as in the case of feeling pain or being sick, or it can be more emotional, such as when we feel anxiety because our thoughts don’t match our reality. One common example this time of year is "I want to be a thin person but I look fat," or "I want to be a healthy person but I don’t exercise, and eat junk food."  

"Resolutions allow us to stop a cycle of conflict at least temporarily by declaring that we will change," Klapow says.

"Unfortunately, the reason we very often continue to set resolutions is that we fail to make the change we resolve to make."

Although making New Year's resolutions is really no different than setting a goal at any other time of the year, there's something about the allure of a clean slate that also lures our brain into wanting and envisioning change, says Steve Levinson, a clinical psychologist and author.

"The brain is wired—beautifully so—both to picture things as they could be and to figure out what we'd have to do to actually make them that way," Levinson says. "That wiring is a defining characteristic of humans. It's our best stuff. It's what's responsible for the fact that we no longer live in caves."Unfortunately, our brains are poorly wired to follow through with these dreams of what could be, Levinson says.
"Amazingly, there's actually no mechanism to connect our good intentions to our behavior. So we can intelligently figure out what we should do and then not do it."
In order to keep your resolutions, Levinson recommends using your brain in a way that you already know works: using it to plan your day, starting with waking up in the morning.
"If you decide you should get up at 4 a.m. tomorrow, you wouldn't count on your intention alone to wake you up," he says.
"You'd set an alarm clock to make sure that you'd be urged to wake up. In a sense, we have to do the same with all our resolutions and intentions. It's not enough to just think we should take a given action. We have to arrange our circumstances to make ourselves actually feel like we must take that action—and keep taking it—until the job is done."

Those making New Year's resolutions should also use the 3-day rule, says Klapow.

"If you’ve gone three days without doing your health habit, stop, write down the reasons why and pick an exact date to get back on track—put that date up on the fridge," he says.

The bottom line? Resolutions are intentions, thoughts or beliefs of things that we want. While they can be an effective first step towards changing behavior, they are by no means sufficient for lasting behavior change. You have to do a little more brainwork to really change yourself, but it's totally possible!

Does this information on the brain and New Year's resolutions resonate with you? How are you turning your resolution from an intention into action? Tell us!


Jennipher Walters is the CEO and co-founder of the healthy living websites and A certified personal trainer, lifestyle and weight management coach and group exercise instructor, she also holds an MA in health journalism and regularly writes about all things fitness and wellness for various online publications.


Add a comment