As you set your New Year’s resolutions for 2021, consider a resolution to help others, says an expert on motivation.
Any motivational researcher would have “ambivalent feelings” about New Year’s resolutions, says Richard Ryan, professor emeritus of psychology at the University of Rochester. “The evidence shows that most of the time people aren’t successful at them.”
But don’t throw in the towel quite yet. Ryan, who is also a clinical psychologist, says that any occasion that gives us an opportunity to reflect on our lives is ultimately a good thing. It doesn’t have to be on New Year’s. “Whenever that happens, if it’s really a reflective change—something that you put your heart behind—that can be good for people.”
And he has another tip: what proves most satisfying—and may also be what’s most needed as the COVID-19 pandemic rages on—are goals that involve giving to others.
“Think of how you can help,” says Ryan. “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.”
His advice is grounded in decades of research. Together with Edward Deci (also a University of Rochester professor emeritus of psychology) Ryan is the cofounder of self-determination theory (SDT), a broad framework for the study of human motivation and personality. The duo developed the theory over nearly 40 years and explain it in detail in their book, Self-Determination Theory: Basic Psychological Needs in Motivation, Development, and Wellness (Guilford, 2018).
The theory has become one of the most widely accepted frameworks of human motivation in contemporary behavioral science. Its starting point is the idea that all humans have the natural—or intrinsic—tendency to behave in effective and healthful ways.
According to Ryan, acts of willingly helping others satisfy all three of the basic psychological needs identified in SDT research: the needs for autonomy, competence, and relatedness. Autonomy in this context means that you can engage in activities in which you feel true volition and find personal value. Competence means feeling effective and having a sense of accomplishment. Finally, relatedness means working with and feeling connected to others.
“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,” says Ryan. “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.”
Here, Ryan explains why New Year’s resolutions often fall short of our goals:
Source: University of Rochester