The Power of a New Year’s Resolution

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It turns out people who make a New Year’s resolution are ten times more likely to change their lives than those who don’t.


That may be hard to believe, given the high dropout rate for those of us who make a perennial promise to shed our vices and excess weight. In fact, the odds you (or I) will abandon our New Year’s resolutions within a month are 1 in 2.7, as common as the likelihood a household owns a freezer (1 in 2.71). But a 2002 study conducted by psychologist John Norcross found that making a resolution is far from an empty gesture.


Comparing groups of people who wanted to modify their behavior in some way (be nicer to Mom, cut out the chain smoking), Norcross found that just 4 percent of people who made no New Year’s resolution persisted in changing their behavior, compared to nearly half (46 percent) of those who did. The type of resolution did not seem to matter—what made the difference was the act of commitment.


If that’s not enough to get you pulling out pen and paper, here are some real-life examples to inspire. In 1995, Betsy Saul, an urban forester and volunteer caregiver in Florida, turned a New Year’s Eve conversation with her husband into a resolution to connect abandoned animals with loving homes. She built a website where animal-welfare groups could communicate with the public. It was slow to catch on, but persistence paid off. Today, Petfinder.com has transformed the industry; accounting for 65 percent of all U.S. pet adoptions and helping more than thirteen million animals find homes.


That very same New Year’s, Matthew Liebman of California was making his own vow. Also motivated by a love of animals, Matthew made up his mind to become a vegetarian. Not only has he stuck to his resolution for fifteen years, today he is an animal rights lawyer. His New Year’s promise not only changed his life, it has shaped it. “There’s never been that sort of payoff with other resolutions I’ve made.”


For Warren Brown of Washington, D.C., keeping his 1999 resolution to follow his passion meant risking the security of a legal career to pursue baking full time. “I told myself it was going to be difficult, and it meant a lot of work, and it was a crazy departure from what I was already doing, but that I had to see what I could make of it.” He opened his bakery CakeLove in 2002. He’s since appeared on Oprah and the Food Network, published a cookbook, and even starred in a commercial for American Express.


For those already regretting they have not kept their New Year’s promises, take heart. Self-doubt and a few slips don’t have to add up to failure. In another study, Norcross found that of the 19 percent of New Year’s resolvers who were successful over a two-year period, more than half (53 percent) had slipped up at least once. The average number of slips was as high as fourteen.


At CakeLove, Brown has a front-row seat to the resolution tug-of-war. “The bakery is dead quiet for the first two weeks of January,” he notes. He ascribes the fall off in business in part to resolutions to stay away from fattening food. But by the third week? “Business is back.”


Still, for the 1 in 4.76 adults who resolve to eat a healthier diet, it turns out that making that resolution on January 1 gives them a good shot at success, even if there are a few cupcakes along the way.


Originally published on Book of Odds

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