As we all venture into a fresh new calendar year, many of us can’t help but turn our minds to the things we would like to ‘change’ in 2023, what we plan to do differently to ensure a cracking new year for ourselves and hopefully those around us.
For many of us, setting New Year’s resolutions has been a tradition we’ve (often blindly) engaged in since childhood. In anticipation of the clock striking midnight, heralding that fresh canvas that inevitably sparks the perennial question from family and friends…”so what’s your resolution for the new year”, we set a goal (often just a repeat of year’s gone by!) and we set out with gusto to embed it in our life. This year we tell ourselves, will be different. Perhaps we want to exercise more, save more, maybe make more nutritious food choices or cut back on the alcohol. Somewhere, somehow though, regardless of how much we might want to stick with our resolution for the new year, sadly we often fall off the wagon and revert to old habits.
There is a plethora of research shedding light on why old habits are hard to break and new ones can be difficult to embed in our lives (James Clear’s Atomic Habits is a terrific book if you’re looking for ways to build good habits and break bad ones), but this year I decided to focus on the science of motivation in setting my goals for 2023. Specifically I decided to harness the power of intrinsic versus extrinsic motivators and approach versus avoidance goals.
You see there are many psychological drivers that can fuel our motivation to do something as humans (or indeed not do something!), fear, curiosity, money, passion, status, purpose, fame, power, autonomy…and the list goes on.
To make things more manageable and to better understand the impact of the various drivers, scientists split our psychological drivers into 2 categories, extrinsic and intrinsic. Extrinsic as the name suggests are things external to ourselves. They are things like money and fame or power. Intrinsic drivers are the opposite. These are psychological and emotional forces such as connection, autonomy, meaning and purpose that are very much within us.
For most of the last century, researchers believed that extrinsic drivers were the more powerful of the pair, BUT this has shifted over the past few decades, as neuroscience has advanced and intrinsic drivers have become better understood. What we NOW know is that there’s a motivational hierarchy at work. External drivers are fantastic, but only until we feel safe and secure – meaning we have enough money to pay for food, clothing and shelter and have a little left over for fun.
If you were to measure happiness levels amongst people as Nobel laureate Daniel Kahneman did, you’d discover that they rise in direct proportion to income, but only to a certain point – that point where we feel safe and secure. After that point, they start to diverge wildly. Happiness becomes untethered to income because, once we can meet our own basic needs, the lure of all the stuff it took to meet them begins to lose its lustre. After that basic needs line is crossed, what we really want are intrinsic rewards. To be clear we ALWAYS want these, but it is difficult to prioritise these if we are feeling unsafe because our basic physical needs have not yet been met.
So, once our basic needs are met intrinsic motivation trumps extrinsic motivation in terms of it’s power to motivate us, but it’s also important to understand that approach reasons are way more effective than avoidance reasons in fuelling our motivation levels – particularly in terms of sustainability of motivation. It’s about whether we’re trying to avoid a negative consequence or approach a positive one, either for ourselves or those around us (because remember we are a social species so anything that feeds connection triggers both feel good and performance enhancing neurochemicals in the brain, including dopamine – a neurochemical that then in turn causes the brain to look for more opportunities to repeat this behaviour thus helping to fuel our motivation naturally).
Sure, you might achieve some short-term change with an avoidance goal but it is likely to be short lived in effectiveness. Threatening someone with a demotion or loss of a job might absolutely motivate them to up their game in the short term, but (unless it threatens their physical survival) this increased engagement is not going to last.
So, this year, I went in search of intrinsic approach goals to set my New Year’s resolutions. I reflected on my core values and what they look like in my life. I knew that anything that helped me to live in increased alignment with these throughout 2023 – would make for a powerful intrinsic goals, and ones that would likely last longer than the usual January to February resolve of years gone by. It was as part of this process of reflection that it hit me – given that two of my core values are family and love – instead of setting my own resolutions for 2023 – I asked my children to set them for me. I asked them to think about something that I consistently do that creates challenges for them and for our relationship. What can I work on doing differently to make a positive difference in their life and the way we communicate and interact together. Now this exercise wasn’t a one way street…I also asked my two teenage children to reflect on what they would like each other to focus on in their interactions together throughout the coming year, and to be willing to discuss together each of our requests (Mum’s requests included!) that we felt would make a positive difference in the way we communication and interact together as a family.
Armed with our reflections and resolutions for each other, and thankful for the work of Barbara Fredrickson and Marcial Losada’s on emotions and communication* that established the Positivity Ratio, we each shared 3 things we love about each other and our interactions and relationships and one goal we would like to set for each other as a resolution for 2023 to improve our relationships and wellbeing even more. (*Fredrickson and Losada’s research found that the tipping point for wellbeing tends to be a 3:1 ratio of positive to negative emotions in your day)
So here I am with my New Year’s Resolutions set, my intrinsic approach goals for 2023. It’s too soon to tell how these will play out for each of us over the next 12 months, but whatever happens, the process of setting them has already had an impact. Will we each make positive progress consistently throughout the next 12months. Hopefully. Was this a more rewarding way to set New Year’s Resolutions to guide me on the things I would like to ‘change’ in 2023, what I plan to do differently to ensure a cracking new year for myself and those around me. Absolutely.
Happy 2023 to you and yours, may it be brimming with love, laughter and good health.