Best For You

Did you make a new year’s resolution last year? At the end of 2020, YouGov found that nearly a quarter of younger adults made a resolution, compared to 12% of the population as a whole.

It can be tempting to set big, ambitious goals, but the YouGov research showed that people don’t always succeed. Although almost half of people managed to keep ‘some, but not all’ of the resolutions they made, a quarter didn’t keep any of their resolutions at all!

Are new year’s resolutions helpful for mental health?

Why we set resolution

If new year’s resolutions don’t have a huge success rate, why do people make them?

The history of new year’s resolutions goes back a long way. The earliest recorded celebration to honour a new year happened around 4,000 years ago in Babylon. It was called the Akitu festival, and it involved 11 or 12 days of festivities dedicated to the rebirth of a god.

Part of the Akitu festival involved the Babylonian people making promises to start the new year right, for example, by paying off their debts. They thought that keeping these promises would get them on the good side of their gods, who would then make good things happen for them.

The Romans carried on the new year hype. Julius Caesar revamped the calendar and declared January the start of the new year. People celebrated by offering sacrifices to the god of new beginnings and making promises that they’d be good and do right in the next year.

Now, new year’s resolutions are mostly secular (non-religious). People might choose to set them because they feel that new year is an opportunity to make changes, or just for a bit of fun.

Resolutions or intentions  

When we talk about resolutions, we mean ‘firm decisions to do or not do something’. Some people feel that resolutions put a lot of pressure on people to make big changes, which can be unrealistic.

Increasingly, people choose to set intentions. These can feel less stressful, leave more room for flexibility, and allow people to embrace slow, gentle changes. They can also help people focus on an end goal and how they’d like to live, rather than individual actions they feel they should (or shouldn’t) do.

For example, instead of deciding to ‘stop scrolling social media’, you could set an intention to ‘pay attention to how I’m spending my time – and try to choose ways that help my wellbeing’.

Do what’s best for you

Ultimately, when it comes to whether new year’s resolutions or intentions are helpful, you know yourself best.

You don’t have to set any kind of aim or goal unless you want to. In fact, if you think it’ll make you feel stressed or worried – or if you think you might set yourself unhealthy targets – it might be best to give it a miss this year.

Setting healthy, helpful intentions

If you’re keen to welcome 2024 with some helpful intentions, there are a few things you can do to guide yourself towards intentions that’ll work for you.

Firstly, it can be helpful to think about your motivations. Ask yourself why you want to set an intention or goal. If your answer involves thinking negatively about yourself or comparing yourself to someone else, for example, it might be a sign that this intention comes from a negative place. Maybe you could try something else, that would help you respond to yourself in a kinder, more understanding way?

You could also look at whether your intentions are realistic. Of course, being ambitious isn’t a bad thing – but you’re more likely to stick to intentions that are achievable. It might help to set a slightly more specific intention, like ‘try to find three things I’m grateful for most days’ instead of something vague like ‘feel happier about my life’.

Part of this can be setting intentions that can begin with small, manageable steps. You could break down an intention like ‘be kinder to myself’ into small steps like ‘take time to say ‘well done’ when something goes well’ or ‘try to notice and challenge my negative thoughts’.

You could also get creative or playful with your intentions. For example, you could make a colourful ‘inspiration board’ for 2024, with visual reminders of your manageable intentions.

Finally, decide how often you’ll check in with yourself throughout 2024. It’s up to you whether you think about your intention often or not – but try not to pile on the pressure.

Focus on your experiences and see it as a kind of experiment, or chance to practise. If things don’t go to plan, it’s OK! Try to speak to yourself as though you were talking to a friend and find compassion for yourself.

At the end of the day, new year’s resolutions are things people choose to do make their lives better or more enjoyable. If they’re not working for you, it’s OK to walk away. You can always try something a bit different next year.