The Science Of Why Your New Year’s Resolutions Won’t Make You Happier

We're forever chasing fulfillment that is just out of reach

Illustration: Vocativ
Dec 26, 2016 at 10:00 AM ET

It’s a nagging thought familiar to anyone who’s ever strived towards a goal— “If only I could accomplish this particular thing, then I’d become truly happy.”

In fact, the endpoint of happiness itself is right at the top of our New Year’s resolutions. One survey found that 2016’s most popular resolution was simply “enjoying life to the fullest.” Other common resolutions, like saving money or going to the gym, often come with the hope that gaining wealth or losing weight will bring deeper fulfillment.

Yet the highs of our imagination inevitably fall short of the reality.

Though a new job or relationship can leave us floating on a cloud for a while, eventually we are prone to fall back to earth, discontent as before. Faced with this cycle of ever-fading bliss, we can’t help but ask ourselves the same maddening question: Isn’t there anything we can do to stay perpetually happy?

A cottage industry of researchers in fields ranging from psychology to marketing have been digging deeply into that question for years now. And they’ve come away with some gems of scientifically-sound wisdom about why we often fail to find long-term happiness by achieving our goals.

“Human beings are remarkably good at getting used to changes in their life, especially positive ones,” said Sonja Lyubomirsky, a professor of psychology at the University of California, Riverside.

This quirk of ours is known as hedonic adaptation by psychology researchers. It’s a mental phenomenon that tempers our emotions over the long-term, both popping our happiness balloon and cushioning us through our most despairing moments. So while an inheritance winner might lament the emptiness of his newfound wealth a few months later, someone else might find a surprising surplus of resilience in the aftermath of losing a parent. It turns out that hedonic adaptation isn’t just meant to protect us from the stumbles of life, but may have an evolutionary purpose: to keep us alert to new threats and rewards alike.

“We’re wired to notice change,” Lyubomirsky explained.

The field of happiness research has grown steadily since the turn of the century, emerging from the schlocky realm of self-help into a body of more evidence-based research. While your local bookstore may still be filled with new-age happiness pearls, for instance, an increasing number of works are being penned by experimental researchers. In 2010, for example, Richard Wiseman’s book, 59 Seconds: Change Your Life in Under a Minute, offered a rebuttal and attempted rehabilitation of the self-help genre using the best science available.

Early research has by now become well-known, but it lacked a certain rigor. The now classic anecdotes of the lottery winner who is miserable months later or the recent paraplegic who quickly adapts to his setback come from a landmark 1978 study, for example. More current research has been able to track people before, during and after a major life adaptation, creating more experimentally rigorous ways to study how our long-term mental wellness shifts in real-time.

Consider one as yet unpublished study by Lyubomirsky’s team. It measured people’s feelings of “enhanced well-being” via a survey as they received five straight days of praise in a row. The positive feedback gave people a temporary, if modest, giddy high, but over the span of two weeks, the happiness boost faded. For whatever reason, Lyubomirsky noted, research has shown that this deflating takes a lot less time to happen than it does to return back to normal after a bout of bad fortune.

To further twist the knife, research has shown that people are incredibly bad at predicting how a big change will affect them, often overestimating its scale. And we’re worse at tracking the fallout from less visible changes too. A 2016 study found that people would award less money to a plaintiff suing someone for emotional damage rather than a physical injury, even if the defendant’s actions caused the same amount of harm in either case.

This all sounds rather bleak. If there’s nothing we can do to boost our long-term happiness, why bother doing anything at all? But researchers say that there is, in fact, evidence that positive changes do have a positive effect. We’re just thinking about it the wrong way.

In fact, it could be that, in many cases, the windfalls or tragedies we experience do shift us permanently, it’s just that our standards of reality shifts along with it. For example, moving a new city or single-bedroom apartment really can be a life-changing event that’s better for us in the long term. Soon enough, though, we might start comparing ourselves to our new neighbors or circle of friends and come away feeling relatively unchanged by the move.

Untangling the role these aspects play has been a challenge for those like Lyubomirsky, but her team has also been tackling a less explored goal: Finding a way to stop or at least slow down the slide back to emotional equilibrium. Her devised strategy, which she’s expounded on both in research papers and in her own 2011 book, The Myths of Happiness, has settled on four practical steps.

“One is procedure of gratitude — not taking things for granted,” she said. “Let’s say you get married and you get used to your partner. If you actively try to appreciate them and express gratitude for them, either to them or to others, you’re not going to adapt as fast.”

Making the most of a happy life also involves creating opportunities for novelty, variety and surprise. It isn’t enough to just get a new car. But driving that car to different, unexpected places every once in a while can lengthen the joy it brings. The changes don’t necessarily have to be drastic or selfish either: A 2008 study by Lyubomirsky and others found that people experienced a greater boost in positivity from doing a different act of kindness each week for 10 weeks than they did from performing the same act. And these considerations apply to negativity too, if in the opposite direction— planning in advance to see the dentist to get your wisdom teeth pulled out is typically less stress-inducing than having to see them because of a sudden toothache, all other things being equal.

How we achieve happiness matters, too. Shooting for personal goals or creating pleasant memories tends to provide a longer and consistent push than nabbing material accomplishments, as does building close friendships and relationships.

If you’re still feeling glum about your chances of eternal happiness, you can try taking a long view of things. Our overall happiness climbs steadily as we age, according to Lyubomirsky, at least up until we’re on our last legs. Contrary to the cliché, that climb owes some amount to the fact that people’s finances steady in their later years. All the money in the world won’t buy you happiness, sure, but a little more spending cash to spend on the occasional vacation certainly doesn’t hurt. Poverty predictably has the opposite effect, leaving the poor sadder than the rich on a day-to-day basis, even after accounting for the greater stress they often experience. While there are many reasons for this, the lack of control and dignity poor people feel about their lives is a big contributor.

At the end of the day, the point isn’t to try to dissuade people from reaching for the stars, lest they eventually get their hearts crushed. Instead, for Lyubomirsky, she’d rather we understand success isn’t a salve to all that plagues us. “It’s good to have goals and to pursue them, but our happiness shouldn’t depend on them,” she said. The minute we achieve them, we’re only going to jump onto the next thing, and the next thing after that, forever chasing a happiness high that never lasts.

Something to keep in mind with the New Year’s siren call of supposedly life-changing resolutions right around the corner.