It’s the end of January, which means that 80% of all those New Year’s resolutions that were set just a few weeks ago have already failed. What is it about those “new chapter” objectives that make them so hard to keep up with? Is the New Year’s goal just some hoax dreamed up by the personal fitness industry to drive new gym membership sales?
Actually, the psychology of goal-setting says that there is probably no better time than the new year to set these types of goals. The Association for Psychological Science says that setting goals at a calendar transition point—such as the start of a new week, a new month, a new financial quarter, and especially a new year—takes advantage of a “fresh start effect” that makes people “more empowered and motivated to pursue their goals when they feel like their past failures are behind them and their future success is ahead of them.”
The fact is that modern humans have become bad at goal-setting in general, no matter what time of year it is. New Year’s resolutions are just more visible, which makes their failures more obvious. The real culprit behind consistent goal failure, as well as the key to success, can be found in the motivational reward system that goals are designed to trigger.
Why goals motivate us
As complex as our feelings can be, they are based on only a handful of chemicals that blend together like a color wheel to produce our vast range of emotion. Four of these chemicals are the primary influencers of happiness: dopamine, oxytocin, serotonin and endorphins (collectively the “DOSE” hormones). Of these chemicals, the one primarily associated with the positive feelings of motivation and energy is dopamine.
Dopamine is released to motivate us when we think about a goal we would like to pursue, and to reward us as we make progress towards achieving that goal. When we set a new goal at the beginning of the year, we get a positive feeling associated with that new pursuit, and this feeling comes from dopamine.
The problem occurs when we lose focus of our goal or even after we successfully accomplish it. With no future goal to focus on, the brain’s dopamine reward system shuts down and reverts to the fight-or-flight chemical cortisol to fill the void. This leads to anxious thoughts and negative health effects.
How to make goal motivation sustainable
The key to this problem—not just for New Year’s resolutions, but for any of our pursuits—is to connect our short-term objectives with a long-term “master goal” for our life. Dr. Angela Duckworth, a prominent psychologist at the University of Pennsylvania, calls this goal a “top-level concern.” In her book Grit: The Power of Passion and Perseverance, she explains that all humans organize their life through a hierarchy of goals within their subconscious. Some of these goals are more obvious than others, but they exist regardless of how aware we are of them and the more we can align with them, the happier we will be.
When we identify a top-level goal, or what I call an ideal goal for our life, and then find a way to connect our short-term goals with that ideal, we can activate a more sustainable dopamine reward system that provides consistent focus over a longer period of time. It makes it easier for us to complete our goals, and then helps to avoid the post-achievement dopamine crash by providing a path from that goal to another one also connected to the same long-term Ideal.
The historic Olympic swimmer Michael Phelps provides a great example of this. For most of his life, he thought that his top-level goal was winning a gold medal. But when he accomplished this feat (and then some), he was left feeling depressed and even suicidal. As he explained in his HBO documentary The Weight of Gold, he was able to make it through this period by realizing that a better top-level goal would be to help others deal with their mental health issues through sharing his personal story. He used this new ideal goal to return to the pool and have another successful Olympic Games, but then was able to continue a joyful pursuit of goals by launching a campaign to support mental health awareness.
Find your own personal ideal
This year, rather than start by thinking about a new short-term goal you want to achieve, you may be better served by spending time thinking about the long-term vision of the type of person you wish to become. Then, you can use that vision to fuel the motivation needed to sustain your efforts.
Mark R. Congdon is the author of The Ideal Life: 7 Steps To Harness Your Stress, Discover Your Purpose, And Achieve Your Goals. Mark has a master’s degree in Industrial-Organizational Psychology from the Harvard Extension School and is the founder and CEO of Into the Ideal, an organization helping individuals find their purpose, joy, and the career they deserve. For more about Mark, check out markrcongdon.com.