Published on Psychology Today
Another year has passed, and as we close the book on 2022 and open a new one, many of us are looking ahead to how we can make this year better than the last. Nearly 40% of people in the US make new year’s resolutions every year, and this percentage is higher for young adults and parents. Most people’s resolutions generally have to do with physical health, by either losing weight, eating better, or quitting one of those not-so-healthy habits like smoking or drinking too much. Some of us focus on improving our mental health, while others resolve to save money or pursue a new career ambition.
The idea behind new year’s resolutions is a great one, but unfortunately, research suggests that our resolutions don’t necessarily stick. One study suggests that about 77% of people break their new year’s resolutions in the very first month (Mandal, 2020). Another set of researchers who followed people’s resolutions over time reported that 77% maintained their pledge for a week, but only 19% were still on track 2 years later (Norcross & Vangarelli, 1988). A final study was a bit more positive, demonstrating that success on keeping resolutions decreases throughout the year, with about half of people staying successful through December (Oscarsson et al, 2020).
So, what do we resolve to do differently this year, and how do we hold on to our resolutions? One implicit theme in thinking about new year’s resolutions is that there is something we didn’t do last year that we should try to do this year, or visa versa. In other words, there are things in life that we regret, and a new year is viewed as an opportunity to make a fresh start.
At some point, many people inevitably think to themselves that they’d like to go through life with no regrets. In his book, The Power of Regret, Daniel Pink talks about how some people believe in the “no regrets” mantra so strongly that they tattoo it on their bodies. But living life without regrets is nearly impossible; in fact, as Pink points out, regret is a normal and healthy part of the human experience. It comes from our ability to think about ourselves over the course of time (past, present, and future), and to reflect on the decisions we’ve made, comparing them to other decisions we could have made. This is a type of thinking called counterfactual reasoning, and while it’s hard for kids under the ages of 6 or 7 (who also have trouble thinking about time), it’s something we can’t help but experience as adults.
There are lots of different kinds of regrets—there are things that we didn’t do but should have. There are things that we did do but shouldn’t have. There are people we should have reached out to, places we should have seen, things we should have said, and things we should have kept to ourselves. According to Pink, we most commonly regret situations that we had control over, like when we should have stuck with something that we quit (i.e., education); we regret situations where we didn’t act but we could have, times when we’ve behaved like less than upstanding individuals, and instances where we could have kept up a connection with someone but failed to reach out.
Like everyone else, and like me, I’m sure you have a few (or more than a few) of these bouncing around in your memory. But don’t fret; it turns out that there is a lot of upside to regret. For example, we can learn from our regrets and do things better next time. In one study, researchers looked at MBA students who were enrolled in a course on negotiation and asked them to be part of a negotiation simulation in the classroom. They found that students who identified regrets in previous negotiations performed better on subsequent negotiations (Kray et al, 2009).
Further, regrets can help us work harder to achieve a better outcome than the one we saw in our past. For example, in another study, researchers asked undergraduate students to form as many words as possible from a set of letters—a task commonly called an anagram. Afterwards, some of the students were asked to reflect on how they could have performed better on the task. Participants who did this performed better on the next round of anagrams compared to a control group that didn’t reflect on their mistakes (Markman et al., 2008).
So this year, instead of letting our regrets eat away at us, we can use them to be better—to make resolutions for the new year. In fact, instead of living life with a “no regrets” motto, sitting and thinking about our regrets might be a much better way to avoid creating new ones that we’ll only have to resolve to change next year.
Photo by Anthony Quintano/Flickr
Kray, L. J., Galinsky, A. D., & Markman, K. D. (2009). Counterfactual structure and learning from experience in negotiations. Journal of Experimental Social Psychology, 45(4), 979-982.
Mandal, S. (2020). How to Make Your New Year’s Resolutions Work? Soc Behav Res Pract Open J, 4(2), 28-29.
Markman, K. D., McMullen, M. N., & Elizaga, R. A. (2008). Counterfactual thinking, persistence, and performance: A test of the reflection and evaluation model. Journal of Experimental Social Psychology, 44(2), 421-428.
Norcross, J. C., & Vangarelli, D. J. (1988). The resolution solution: Longitudinal examination of New Year's change attempts. Journal of substance abuse, 1(2), 127-134.
Oscarsson, M., Carlbring, P., Andersson, G., & Rozental, A. (2020). A large-scale experiment on New Year’s resolutions: Approach-oriented goals are more successful than avoidance-oriented goals. PLoS One, 15(12), e0234097.
Pink, D. H. (2022). The power of regret: How looking backward moves us forward. Penguin.