So you want to look trimmer, be smarter, and successful next year? You strive to exercise and call your friends more, and spend less? But will these changes make you happier?
You are not alone. New Year’s resolutions are as ubiquitous as they are difficult to keep. Does it even make sense to set such lofty goals for the new year, hoping anew each January first that this time really is the charm?
Any motivational researcher would have “ambivalent feelings” about New Year’s resolutions, says Richard Ryan, an international expert on motivational research and professor emeritus of psychology at the University of Rochester. “The evidence shows that most of the time people aren’t successful at them.”
But don’t throw in the towel quite yet. Ryan, who is also a clinical psychologist, says that any occasion that gives us an opportunity to reflect on our lives is ultimately a good thing. It doesn’t have to be on New Year’s. “Whenever that happens, if it’s really a reflective change — something that you put your heart behind — that can be good for people.”
And he has another tip: what proves most satisfying, and may also be what’s most needed as the COVID-19 pandemic rages on, are goals that involve giving to others.
“Think of how you can help,” says Ryan. “There’s a lot of distress out there: If we can set goals that aim to help others, those kinds of goals will, in turn, also add to our own well-being.”
His advice is grounded in decades of research. Together with Edward Deci (also a University of Rochester professor emeritus of psychology) Ryan is the cofounder of self-determination theory (SDT), a broad framework for the study of human motivation and personality. Developed by the duo over nearly 40 years, the theory has become one of the most widely accepted frameworks of human motivation in contemporary behavioral science. Its starting point is the idea that all humans have the natural — or intrinsic — tendency to behave in effective and healthful ways.
According to Ryan, who is also a professor at the Institute for Positive Psychology and Education at Australian Catholic University, acts of willingly helping others satisfy all three of the basic psychological needs identified in SDT research: the needs for autonomy, competence, and relatedness. Autonomy in this context means that you can engage in activities in which you feel true volition and find personal value. Competence means feeling effective and having a sense of accomplishment. Finally, relatedness means working with and feeling connected to others.
“If you want to make a New Year’s resolution that really makes you happier, think about the ways in which you can contribute to the world,” says Ryan. “All three of these basic needs are fulfilled. The research shows it’s not just good for the world but also really good for you.”
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