The director of Mass General's Benson-Henry Institute offers some tips on how to make New Year's resolutions stick.

Whether you are among the nearly half of all Americans who make New Year’s resolutions, or are among those who don’t because you think they won’t last, the topic is worth a bit of reflection.

Recent studies on the success of New Year’s resolutions—and yes, there are actually such studies—showed that only about 8 percent of people successfully fulfilled their resolutions over the long term. And just what are these New Year’s resolutions? The top five include:

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  1. Losing weight
  2. Getting organized
  3. Spending less, saving more
  4. Enjoying life to the fullest
  5. Staying fit and healthy

All worthy goals, and most of us can stick with them for at least the first week. But by the first month, only about 60 percent are keeping up with them, and by six months the percentage drops to less than half.

Why Resolutions Fail

To improve our chances for success, it’s worth looking at why New Year’s resolutions typically fail.

When we initially set goals, we are filled with enthusiasm and determination. If the goal is, say, to lose weight, we steadfastly deny treats or seconds and choose healthy alternatives for meals throughout those early days. But life has its ups and downs, and when the world seems overwhelmingly stressful and we feel we’ve lost control of circumstances, it becomes increasingly difficult to stick with the plan.

There are dozens of ways to practice eliciting the relaxation response, including various types of seated meditation, as well as moving meditations like yoga and tai chi, and prayer.

So what’s the secret ingredient to help us more effectively carry out admirable resolutions towards improved health and happiness?

The answer does not involve trying to control our circumstances or even setting lower or shorter-term goals. Rather, we must work with the one thing that we can control: our own reactions to life’s challenging situations.

Learning to Shift Responses

Here are two ways the Benson-Henry Institute (BHI) teaches people to shift responses to stressful circumstances:

Shifting mental reactions. There are many stress-based responses we can have to any given situation. Say you miss your train to work. An all-or-nothing thinker might say, “Why does this always happen to me?” A perfectionist might say, “I can’t believe I was stupid enough not to set my alarm 10 minutes earlier.” A  catastrophizer would think, “This is going to be the worst day ever!” and so on…

Coming to understand your personal stress response habits is an important first step in shifting towards more helpful thinking. Using the example above, more helpful responses might be, “This gives me the opportunity to be out in the fresh air while I wait 20 minutes for the next train,” or “I’ll remember to set my alarm clock a bit earlier from here on,” or “It’s not that big a deal. I’ll catch the next train and check my email in the meantime.”

Shifting physical reactions. At BHI, we teach people a wide variety of techniques to elicit the relaxation response (RR), which is experienced as a state of profound rest that directly counteracts the physiological stress response (sometimes called the fight-or-flight response).

When practiced regularly, eliciting the RR can help prevent the nervous system from overreacting when stressful situations arise. There are dozens of ways to practice eliciting the relaxation response, including various types of seated meditation, as well as moving meditations like yoga and tai chi, and prayer. We encourage people to find the techniques that work best for them, though all involve focusing the mind with a repetitive word, sound, phrase or action, and keeping a sense of mindful openness while letting go of everyday concerns. Learning to meditate has been scientifically shown to beneficially shift gene expression, and long-term practitioners are increasingly resilient to stress, and better able to adapt to challenging life situations over time.

So, even though New Year’s Eve has passed, why not strengthen  your resolution with these practices that will likely enhance your chances of success in the year to come.

Since 2006, BHI has been integrating the field of mind/body medicine into Massachusetts General Hospital’s clinical care, research and training programs.  To learn more about how you can support BHI and its programs, please contact us.

This story was first published by the Benson-Henry Institute.

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Gregory L. Fricchione, MD is director of the Benson-Henry Institute for Mind Body Medicine at Massachusetts General Hospital. He also serves as associate chief of Psychiatry and director of the Division of Psychiatry and Medicine at MGH and is a professor of Psychiatry at Harvard Medical School.