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The science behind failed New Year's resolutions

The start of the New Year almost seems like a magical time. We feel such a sense of encouragement and motivation, and we convince ourselves that this year will be different. We can start fresh. We can change. We can leave all of our bad habits in the past year, and adopt healthy habits for the future year. However, why don't these feelings last? Why is it so hard to change our bad habits?  Why, so often, do our New Year's resolutions fail?


Scientists have found answers to these questions by studying a region of the brain known as the prefrontal cortex. The prefrontal cortex, which is located behind the forehead, plays a big role in focusing our attention, solving problems, managing short-term memory, and willpower (1). Because the prefrontal cortex is involved in so many functions, it can easily be overwhelmed (1). When this occurs, willpower tends to suffer, and as a result, we succumb to temptation (1). For example, when we come home from an exhausting day, we are more likely to eat unhealthy foods because our over stimulated brain makes us less able to resist our pleasures (1).


In addition to mental exhaustion, lack of energy also reduces our ability to carry out resolutions (1). By far, the most common resolution is to lose weight. However, in an attempt to do so, many jeopardize their other goals (1). Scientists have found that depriving the brain of calories makes us more vulnerable to surrendering to previous bad habits, such as smoking (1).


Often times when individuals are unable to give up these types of bad habits, we see it as a character flaw. We assume that they are careless or have a lack of determination.  However, scientists have found that some brains are hardwired in such a way that makes keeping resolutions difficult (2). For example, some individuals are inherently less capable of shifting their thoughts away from temptations (1). Others primarily have difficulty abstaining from risky activities, such as indulging in excess amounts of alcohol and drugs (2). When we participate in these types of dangerous activities, our brain releases the chemical dopamine (2). Some brains are less able to regulate dopamine, and some brains crave the excitement that results from high levels of dopamine more than others (2). Therefore, many can't resist taking risks simply because the design of their brain makes it difficult for them to do so (2).


In conclusion, it is evident that we are all born with certain shortcomings. For some of us, it is physiologically more difficult to achieve goals than for others. However, we should not use our brain's limitations as an excuse to fail at our New Year's resolutions. Rather, we can use this scientific knowledge of the brain to help us succeed. We now understand that our willpower is limited. Therefore, we can pace ourselves when making resolutions. Experts suggest beginning with small resolutions and slowly working up to more drastic life changes (2). Learning to distract the brain away from temptations can also greatly increase the probability of a resolution's success. Getting adequate rest and nutrition are also easy things we can do to help our brain function optimally and to make the most of the New Year.
 

References:

  1. Blame it on the Brain
  2. Blame brain for failing to keep New Year's resolution

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