What genetics say about whether you’ll keep your New Year’s resolutions

So many of us start out with good intentions at the beginning of a new year. And then those intentions land in the garbage when we realize we really haven’t changed all that much just because we have a new calendar.

It’s an easy cop-out to blame something else for our failure to keep our New Year’s resolutions. We can blame our work schedules, or gym prices, or family matters that got in the way. But can we blame our very predispositions? Can we blame our genes?

Personal genomics and biotechnology company 23andMe set out to answer that very query. Each March for the last three years, the DNA testing group asked consenting customers two questions: “Did you make a New Year’s resolution this year?” and if so, “How well have you been able to follow your New Year’s resolution until now?”

Then, researchers used customer answers in a genome-wide association study to see if genetics predisposed any particular set of people to keep their resolutions while others foundered.

At this point, some readers may grow weary. After all, anything that tries to study natural genetic inclinations sounds like it may lean toward eugenics and Social Darwinism — two fields of thought that have grown antiquated with the passage of time, as people have realized that both have racist underpinnings.

But the 23andMe research does not seem to wander into problematic territory; in fact, researchers found that the “adherence” genome-wide association study “did not yield any genome-wide significant hits” (though they noted the analysis was underpowered and might need more responses for interesting results). Instead, factors for whether people kept their resolutions were much more practical and environment-dependent.

Who sticks to resolutions?

Women are really good at pointing out their own flaws. 23andMe found that they’re “much more likely to make New Year’s resolutions than men,” which probably isn’t all that surprising. Without risking stereotyping, it’s safe to say at least some women focus a lot on self-improvement and self-realization, and magazines and other cultural touchstones are constantly telling women how to be better.

But though men may make fewer resolutions, they’re more likely to keep them once they do. The same goes for older people — though they’re less inclined to come up with that original goal, they stick with the one they make.

Why do some people succeed?

Though we’d all like to blame our genetics for our failings, researchers at 23andMe said that “genetic effects we identified here are mild.” They cited influencers such as “picking reasonable goals and having a supportive environment” as other forces that affect whether we see our resolutions through.

So instead of resolving to run that marathon after avoiding the treadmill for years, maybe it’s a good idea to go on a 20-minute walk every day. Or instead of giving up our favorite dessert forever, perhaps it’s enough to limit consumption to once a month. Little steps can turn into big strides, no matter our genetic code.