Forget weight loss: New Year’s resolutions to help others will make you happier

ROCHESTER, N.Y. — This will be the year you’ll finally drop those extra pounds you put on during the holidays, right? Perhaps your New Year’s resolution is to get back out and travel more. Whatever the plan is, a professor from the University of Rochester says you’re better off throwing your lofty goals out now because few ever get accomplished. To change things up, and make yourself happier, the expert on motivation and well-being claims resolutions to help others will be better for you personally in the long run.

Richard Ryan, professor emeritus of psychology at the University of Rochester, says motivational researchers always have mixed feelings about making New Year’s resolutions.

“The evidence shows that most of the time people aren’t successful at them,” he explains in a university release. “That is because most of these midnight resolutions look more like pressure coming from the outside—an attempt to look better, relieve guilt, or meet the standards of others. Losing weight, for example, is one of the most common New Year’s goals and one that people tend to do poorly at. Part of the reason for that is where it’s coming from: it’s often coming from internal or external pressure—as opposed to a goal that’s something that you might intrinsically value such as having more health or vitality. If the goal is one that is not ‘authentic’ and not really coming from your own values or interests, the energy for it fades fast.

New Year’s resolutions that improve the world ‘add to our own well-being’

The clinical psychologist says people shouldn’t look at this as a reason to give up on making goals. Instead, Ryan contends that any occasion that gives someone the opportunity to reflect on their life is a good thing. “Whenever that happens, if it’s really a reflective change — something that you put your heart behind — that can be good for people,” he notes.

The professor’s tip for New Year’s suggests that goals which include giving back to others will likely be the most satisfying resolutions to make. “Think of how you can help. There’s a lot of distress out there: If we can set goals that aim to help others, those kinds of goals will, in turn, also add to our own well-being,” Ryan explains.

Ryan and fellow professor emeritus of psychology Edward Deci created the “self-determination theory,” a framework for their research on human motivation and personality. Its basic principle is that all humans have a natural tendency to act in effective and healthful ways.

To that end, Ryan finds that being helpful satisfies all three psychological needs discovered by the self-determination theory — autonomy, competence, and relatedness. When it comes to helping others, autonomy refers to engaging in activities which give you a feeling of personal value. Competence describes feeling effective while also having a sense of accomplishment regarding your good deed. Lastly, relatedness expresses the feeling of working and sharing a connection with others.

“We found that when people are focused on giving to others they experience deeper satisfactions than when their goals are more self-oriented. For example, experiments show that doing something benevolent for others, even when you will never meet the beneficiary, increases your positive mood and energy,” Ryan reports.

“If you want to make a New Year’s resolution that really makes you happy, think about the ways in which you can contribute to the world. All three of these basic needs are fulfilled. The research shows it’s not just good for the world but also really good for you.”

Ryan’s recent findings appear in the Journal of Personality and Social Psychology.

This updated article was first posted on December 31, 2020.

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About the Author

Chris Melore

Chris Melore has been a writer, researcher, editor, and producer in the New York-area since 2006. He won a local Emmy award for his work in sports television in 2011.

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