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Why Those Resolutions Won’t Make You Happy

Research Says . . .


by Arthur C. Brooks
Special to The Washington Post

Have you passed from New Year’s high hopes into the trough of self-loathing yet? Or are your resolutions still intact?

According to the polling firm YouGov, the four most common resolutions for 2019 were familiar ones: exercise more, eat healthier, save money and lose weight. And yet, while reading this essay, maybe you are mowing down a box of Oreos after shopping on the internet for things you can’t afford, feeling like a failure.

Psychologists at the University of Scranton have found that 29 percent of New Year’s resolutions fail after one to two weeks, 36 percent after a month, 50 percent after three months and a clear majority thereafter.

That’s the bad news. Here’s the good news: If you have already failed, a second opportunity awaits—and you can start today. Not an opportunity to restart your original, ill-fated plan; rather, to understand what went wrong the first time and to set a goal that will actually improve your life in 2019.

When you make a New Year’s resolution, what is your true objective? Perhaps your first reaction is “Duh, I want to weigh less and get out of debt.” But that’s almost certainly misguided. The aim is to improve your life—broadly speaking, to be happier. Then, you probably evaluated the barriers to your happiness by listing your obvious bad habits. You saw an empty cookie jar, a couch with a big imprint of your rear end, a hollow bank account. That’s how you got from a happiness objective to specific resolutions.

As worthy as those resolutions might have been, you made a critical error: looking at the perceived barriers to happiness, not at the true sources of it. Psychologist Martin Seligman at the University of Pennsylvania is the creator of a field called positive psychology. Most psychologists try to correct big problems and abnormal behavior, but Seligman focuses on how people without clinical dysfunctionality—you, notwithstanding your bad habits—can be happier. He emphasizes five sources of enduring life satisfaction: positive emotion, engagement in fulfilling activities, relationships, meaning and accomplishments. In my own research on the sources of happiness, I boil them down to four similar pillars: faith, family, friends and meaningful work that serves others.

In my own research on the sources of happiness, I boil them down to four similar pillars: faith, family, friends and meaningful work that serves others.

Notice that there is nothing on either of those lists about cutting out french fries or joining a gym. And therein lies the reason you failed (or probably will): making resolutions that didn’t match your heart’s true desires. You wanted more love but instead decided to spend an hour a day on the elliptical machine. Consciously or unconsciously, you quickly figured out that you were not making progress toward your real goals, decided the sacrifice wasn’t worth the cost and went back to your old ways.

But maybe you think that going on a diet and exercising will make you more self-confident and attractive, thus improving your marriage or romantic prospects. Then you’ll be happy, right?

The data doesn’t support this. According to the 2014 General Social Survey, the average body mass index for people who classify themselves as “very happy” is 27.4, which is about halfway between overweight and obese. The average BMI for those who are “pretty happy” is 28.1 and “not too happy” is 29. The measurement is clearly not a meaningful indicator of happiness. The average BMI for people who say they have “very happy” marriages is 28, which once again is indistinguishable from that for those with pretty-happy and not-so-happy marriages. Simply put, if your life lacks love, skipping those cherished potato chips won’t solve your biggest problem.

If you still don’t believe this, do your own research. Go down to that gym you just joined and talk to people with chiseled abs who work out for hours every day and eat nothing but celery and protein shakes. As an inveterate gym rat, I can assure you that you will not find many people who possess the cosmic secrets to love and life satisfaction. (This might itself give you a little schadenfreude-induced jolt of joy.)

What about money? This is a bit more complicated, because there is evidence that moving from poverty into the lower middle class can reduce anxiety about economic pressures, a major source of unhappiness. (The unhappiness-reduction effect, in my view, justifies many social safety-net programs.)

But beyond that, the saying that money can’t buy happiness is true, or at least the connection between economic security and happiness is largely an illusion. In 2010, Princeton economists Daniel Kahneman and Angus Deaton published a paper in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences titled “High income improves evaluation of life but not emotional well-being.” They found that while people might expect more and more income to increase their daily happiness, it doesn’t happen.

With all this information, what should you do to reset 2019 with new resolutions? Start by asking yourself what pillar of happiness is missing in your life.

Does it have to do with spirituality? With your family, friends or romantic life? Or maybe you wish you had a job that instilled a stronger sense of earned success and service to others?

By all means, take care of your physical health and finances. But don’t stop there. Of course, resolving to worship better, love people more or change your work can be even more challenging than going to the gym. That brings me to a second suggestion: Make process resolutions instead of outcome resolutions. The wonderful truth about the sources of happiness is that pursuing them is an abundant reward in itself. Don’t resolve to achieve ultimate success but rather to accomplish what you can every day: Pray or meditate for 15 minutes, call someone you love after dinner and spend a few minutes each morning searching for a job or vocation that sets your heart on fire.

Taking steps such as those will increase the likelihood of attaining the success you truly crave. And who knows? Maybe you can even get back part of the fee for that gym membership. WT