The end of the year often brings about a wide range of emotions. Websites feature articles on ‘looking back’ on the previous year, listing major events that took place within the last 365 days, list people we have lost, along with detail some of the things we can look forward to in the following year. The New Year almost seems like a time where we can wipe (some) our sins clean, start over, learn from this year’s mishaps, failings, and missed opportunities to better our lives before the end of the next calendar year. At least, that’s what we tell ourselves. How many times have we said, “Next year, I will
Here’s how you can use emotions can help you set resolutions that both motivate and stick. When you boil it down to its core, resolutions are really a type of long-term goal; they represent intended, desirable and positive outcomes we desire for ourselves. Emotions motivate and prompt action – sometimes divided into a dichotomy of approach- (moving towards) or avoidance- (moving away from) actions. Ever realized how your New Year resolutions tend to be either doing more of something (e.g. exercise) or overcoming bad habits or behaviours (e.g. quit smoking)? You might even make resolutions that combine both. If your resolution for the New Year is resolving to take better care of your mental health, you may set a goal to spend more time with family (approach) and less time in the office (avoid). When you set your resolutions, think about how meeting – or failing to meet those goals will make you feel. These anticipatory emotions are important in motivating action in the present moment; you anticipate feeling certain positive, pleasant and desired emotion states from achieving your goal, and you anticipate feeling other negative, unpleasant and undesired emotion states from failing to meet that goal. Recognizing the influence of these anticipatory emotions can augment our goal- and resolution-setting strategies, making it all the more likely we will accomplish what we initially set our minds to.
Let’s take a resolution made so often that we could almost consider it a staple statement for every New Year’s Eve gathering: weight loss. A study by psychologists Richard Bagozzi and Rik Pieters, employing a sample of Dutch adults first identified those who had a clear intention to reduce their body weight. They then asked these adults to provide scores on 17 anticipatory emotions – positive ones such as excited, delighted, proud, and self-assured, to negative ones such as guilty, ashamed, and disappointed. Bagozzi and Pieters then tracked their behaviours towards meeting their weight loss goal. These included reports of whether the participants exercised regularly, or kept to a stricter diet to help them lose weight. Finally, the researchers also measured whether these adults reached their goal, and the emotions they felt as an outcome from their experiences over a 4-week period. The results showed that anticipatory emotions were a clear, and significant indicator of exercise and dieting volitions and intentions. Adults who reported higher positive anticipatory emotions were more likely to engage in the exercise routine and adopt a healthy diet towards helping with their weight loss. The same was found for the participants reporting negative anticipatory emotions – they too, displayed greater intentions to engage in both diet and exercise . Both positive and negative anticipatory emotions then, had a clear impact on formulating intentions and sustaining the participant’s efforts towards their weight loss resolution.
A similar approach towards making such anticipatory goal-setting approaches work for you comes from the work of Gabriele Oettingen. This approach, which the psychologist handily calls “WOOP,” is based on something called mental contrasting and implementation intentions. Perhaps you did this indirectly while reading the article above. If your goal was also to shed a few pounds (or kilos) off your body weight, you might have projected how you would feel had you managed to (or failed to) reach that goal. Notice how you may have contrasted both the positive and negative anticipatory emotions from having these thoughts – the WOOP approach essentially gets you to compare between these two positive and negative anticipatory states, and formulate an intentional activity from it all. Let’s use the weight loss example again. Step one is to identify a Wish (this can be any goal – let’s use the weight loss resolution here as the example). Next, think about the positive Outcomes – along with all the positive anticipatory emotions that comes with accomplishing this goal (e.g. I will feel better, people will notice me more and compliment me). Third, contrast that with the Obstacles – and the negative anticipatory emotions you are likely to face in attempting to reach this goal (e.g. Resisting dessert and sweets will be hard, I might not lose as much weight as I would like). Fourth, make a Plan – generate strategies that will help you commit to, and accomplished your goal (e.g. Go to the gym, sign up for classes with that cute personal fitness instructor). WOOP, in short, stands for Wish, Outcome, Obstacles, and Plan . The mental contrast between the Outcome and Obstacles has been shown to be an effective approach towards positive behavioural change, helping to strengthen the intention-action link. And it’s not just individuals with dieting or exercising behaviours intentions that benefit from this approach. The WOOP approach has also been shown to be effective in helping students improve their classroom attendance, academic grades and conduct – suggesting that goal-setting can indeed be made more effective through the use of both positive, and negative anticipatory emotions .
What’s a goal you have that is still presently unmet? Try incorporating both anticipatory emotions – both pleasant and unpleasant, along with mental contrasting to helping you meet them. And you don’t have to wait until the New Year rolls around to do so. As an easy start, why not simply resolve now – to set better, more motivating goals for yourself using the approaches suggested above? Think about how you might feel, knowing that better goal setting was really all you needed to do to attain a better you.