Bouncing Back From New Year's Failures

Docs say the most successful people fail several times before reaching a goal.

ByLAUREN COX<br>ABC News Medical Unit
January 30, 2009, 4:44 PM

Feb. 2, 2009&#151; -- It's February now, and to those who have broken their New Year's resolutions, psychologists say surprise, surprise.

Research shows that a majority of us fail at our noble cause to quit smoking, or to go to the gym, or to save money within weeks of Jan. 1.

Take, for example, smoking. "Think about 100 people who got up on New Year's Day and quit smoking," said Dr. Douglas Jorenby, professor of medicine at the University of Wisconsin School of Medicine and Public Health in Madison.

"If you check in with those 100 people, assuming they stopped cold turkey, only about five of them would be nonsmokers at the end of 2009," he said. Take 100 people trying to quit with counseling and smoking aids, and Jorenby said about 20 people will successfully quit in a year.

But not to despair, health experts say there are clear red flags to a doomed resolution, and that often the most successful reformers are the ones who have already failed several times before.

One way to gauge whether a resolution is doomed would be to look for the so-called "False Hope Syndrome," as described by Janet Polivy, professor of psychology and psychiatry at the University of Toronto, Mississauga.

"False hope is based on unrealistic expectations," said Polivy. "People expect that their change will be very fast, that it will be easy, that it will be huge and that it will have all kinds of fantastic benefits on every aspect of their lives."

Not that Polivy is against hope, but she found in research that false hope has the opposite effect on people's goals.

"It doesn't lead people to achieve at least part of their goals, it ends their goals," she said. "When people's expectations are unrealistic, even when they're actually succeeding -- exercising more than they were but not going to the gym every day -- they give up."

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Just to dash people's false hopes further, Polivy has found in her research that there is a group of chronic "false hopers" in the population.

Prone to Failed Resolutions

"These are some people who are more prone to hear what they want to hear," said Polivy. "For other people, if it sounds too good, it probably is. For false hopers, if it sounds too good but it's something they want, they'll start to believe."

But Polivy said even a failure due to false hope can send a person on the track to success.

"When people do change, it's usually after several tries," said Polivy. "It's not stupid to try again; it's stupid to try again in the same manner."

Many of Polivy's research findings ring true with the experiences of Madelyn Fernstrom, director of the University of Pittsburgh Medical College Weight Management Center.

"The beginning of February is always good to take stock," said Fernstrom. "A lot of people aren't doing well."

Like Polivy, Fernstrom said the most successful dieters look at breaking a New Year's resolution not as a failure, but as a time to realistically tweak the original goal.

"People typically know what they need to be doing," said Fernstrom. "Realistic is 'I'm going to walk 30 minutes a day, not work out 5 days a week.'"

"Learn from the past month," she said.

According to tobacco experts, learning from past mistakes is also the key to quitting cigarettes.

The good news: "There are now more ex-smokers than current smokers in this country," said Dr. Steve Schroeder, distinguished professor of health and health care in the Department of Medicine and Public Health at the University of California, San Francisco.

"But most of them took seven, eight or nine tries to quit," said Schroeder.


Don't succumb to resolution fatigue. Visit the OnCall+ Wellness Center to get more tips on keeping your health on track.

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