A new year is the perfect time to break bad habits and form good ones. Many of us resolve to be healthier, save money, and make positive behavioral changes. However, it can often be challenging to maintain these resolutions once January is over. Don’t be discouraged—there is good news! Balanced brain chemistry can help you maintain motivation and delay gratification so that your New Year’s resolutions are easier to keep.
Motivational salience is a term used in the fields of psychology and neuroscience to describe how our brains choose what to pay attention to. We are surrounded by so much stimuli that we can’t process all of it at once. Things that are salient are most important for survival or success. For example, food, attractive members of the opposite sex, and money are all salient stimuli for humans. These are the things that motivate us, things that we work to achieve.
Norepinephrine and dopamine are catecholamine neurotransmitters that are important for determining salience and maintaining motivation., By studying mice, scientists have determined that the level of norepinephrine released in the prefrontal cortex (PFC) is directly proportional to the level of salience for a particular stimulus. That is to say, more norepinephrine was released when the mice were exposed to highly desirable food than when they were exposed to less desirable food. Dopamine in the PFC is involved in learning, decision making, and responding to salient reward or punishment. Researchers have found that when dopaminergic neurotransmission is disrupted in the human brain, the ability to change our behavior in order to earn rewards is decreased. The capacity to distinguish between salient and non-salient outcomes is diminished.
So how do all these lab experiments apply to New Year’s resolutions? Our New Year’s resolutions are essentially goals that must have salience. If we want to be able to stay motivated in achieving our goals, research shows that optimal levels of norepinephrine and dopamine are important.
Motivation is certainly important in keeping New Year’s resolutions, but so is the ability to delay gratification. Eating a piece of cake makes you feel good in the moment, but resisting the cake to achieve weight loss goals is better in the long run. Delay discounting is a term that describes the phenomenon of devaluing a reward based on the amount of time it takes to receive it. People who show increased delay discounting, or choose smaller more immediate rewards over larger rewards in the future, are typically more impulsive., They have a reduced ability to delay gratification and optimize their decisions involving risk and reward.
A group of researchers found that rats with lesions in the DLS (a region densely packed with dopaminergic neurons), chose small immediate rewards more frequently than rats without these lesions. This finding suggests that dopamine plays a crucial role in regulating decision making and delaying gratification. The amount of serotonin in the central nervous system is also associated with the ability to delay gratification. When researchers used tryptophan depletion to decrease serotonin levels in human subjects, they found that it increased impulsivity. People with low serotonin showed more delay discounting than controls.
These studies tell us that adequate serotonin and dopamine are necessary for delaying gratification—an important aspect of keeping a New Year’s resolution.
Whether your resolution is to eat healthier, quit smoking, or save money, balancing dopamine, norepinephrine, and serotonin is an important step in setting up your brain for success in 2017.
 Shiner T, Symmonds M, Guitart-Masip M, et. al. (2015). Dopamine, Salience, and Response Set Shifting in Prefrontal Cortex. Cerebral Cortex 25:3629–3639
 Ventura R, Latagliata EC, Morrone C, et. al. (2008) Prefrontal Norepinephrine Determines Attribution of ‘‘High’’ Motivational Salience. PLoS ONE 3(8): e3044. doi:10.1371/journal.pone.0003044
 Shiner op. cit.
 Tedford SE, Persons AL, & Napier TC. (2015). Dopaminergic Lesions of the Dorsolateral Striatum in Rats Increase Delay Discounting in an Impulsive Choice Task. PLoS ONE 10(4): e0122063.doi:10.1371/journal.pone.0122063
 Schweighofer N, Bertin M, Shishida K, et. al. (2008). Low-Serotonin Levels Increase Delayed Reward Discounting in Humans. The Journal of Neuroscience 28(17):4528–4532
 Tedford op. cit.
 Schweighofer op. cit.