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Tiny, scientific changes that can make your New Year’s resolutions stick

Reuters/ Rick Wilking
Psychologists have found a easy lifestyle changes that help people lose weight.
  • Olivia Goldhill
By Olivia Goldhill

Science reporter

This article is more than 2 years old.

New Year’s resolutions tend to be both ambitious and unsuccessful. We set ourselves vague, broad goals—to lose weight or be happier or more confident—and then abandon them just a few weeks later. It’s hard to transform your personality or lifestyle on the whim of a New Year’s wish, and if you want to see real change, psychologists say you need to be realistic and specific.

Fortunately, psychology is no stranger to specificity: There are hundreds of scientific studies that link tiny tweaks in daily behavior to broad, positive effects, and these studies could be put to good use in 2016. Here are just a few of the practically effortless changes that could provide the boost to make your New Year’s resolutions stick.

To be more confident -> Change your posture

Social psychologist Amy Cuddy has the second most popular Ted talk of all time with her speech on how body language shapes who you are. We make important judgments based on body language, says Cuddy, such as “who we hire or promote, who we ask out on a date.” But strong body language doesn’t simply suggest confidence—it also actively creates it. Cuddy found that lab participants who spent two minutes doing high-power poses (taking up lots of space and standing like Wonder Woman, for example), had 20% higher testosterone levels and 25% lower stress hormone cortisol levels. And when you don’t have time to nip to the bathroom for a high-power pose, you can also boost your confidence by changing your posture at your desk. A 2014 study of 74 people who were told to sit either slumped or bolt upright while given a series of tests found “adopting an upright seated posture in the face of stress can maintain self-esteem, reduce negative mood, and increase positive mood compared to a slumped posture.”

To lose weight-> Re-arrange your cupboards

How you organize your kitchen has a big effect on how you eat, according to Brian Wansink, professor and director at Cornell University’s Food and Brand Lab. People ate nearly three times more fruit and vegetables when they kept them on the top shelf of their refrigerator, rather than hidden away in a crisper drawer, he told USA Today. Meanwhile people ate 44% more snack food when kitchens were cluttered, and women who kept just one box of breakfast cereal out on the counter weighed an average 21lb more than those who only had fruit visible in the kitchen.

To be less anxious-> Spend more time in nature

Studies have found that nature can have a tremendous effect on wellbeing, generally reducing stress and creating feelings of calm. A Swedish study of hospital patients found that those who simply looked at pictures of nature reported less anxiety, adding to existing research that suggests that scenic views reduce fear and stressful thoughts. Another study gave people 40 minutes of draining mental tasks, and then asked them to take a break. Those who went to the local nature reserve had less anger and more positive emotions than those who walked through the city or read a magazine quietly. And those who have a view of trees from an office window report higher job enjoyment and general life satisfaction.

To build friendships-> Hand out warm drinks

You might have to create an appropriate setting first, such as a dinner party, but a 2008 study published in the journal Science found that experiencing physical warmth creates interpersonal warmth. Researchers asked 41 participants to hold either a hot or cold drink, and found that those who held the warm cup judged a stranger as having a warmer personality than those who held a cold cup. A mug of hot chocolate won’t be enough to build an entire friendship, but it could create the warm feelings to help get you started.

To be happier-> Keep a gratitude journal

Happiness shouldn’t be an elusive goal, but something we can actively create. In 2003, psychology professors Robert Emmons and Michael McCullough asked participants to keep a journal, listing five events of the previous week. Some were told to note five hassles, others listed neutral events, and others were told to list five events they were grateful for. Those who did the latter were found to be significantly happier. “We believe that we have established a rather easily implemented strategy for improving one’s level of well-being,” wrote the authors.

Of course these aren’t the only ways to achieve your goals. There are countless other studies on ways to increase happiness, for example—such as the positive effects of kindness. But the point is that to make your New Year’s resolutions successful, it’s important to focus not just on what you want to achieve, but how you plan to realize your goals. When it comes to turning your resolutions into actions, there are plenty of psychology studies that can provide a little help along the way.

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