Most people around the world have at some point made a New Year’s resolution. For some, it is an annual tradition. For others, it’s a starting point for setting personal goals or just a fun thing to talk about around the festive table.
The practice is actually a lot older than you might think, dating all the way back to the Babylonians 4,000 years ago. The ancient civilization celebrated the New Year (which came around in mid-March back then) with a 12-day festival called Akitu. Now, one of the traditions associated with Akitu was making promises to the gods. If the promiser stayed true to their word, paid off their debts and returned borrowed tools, they would enjoy their deity’s favor; if not, they would suffer the consequences.
The tradition has, of course, become largely secular over the years. Moving away from sacrifices and promises to gods, it is now mainly focused on personal goals centered around self-improvement—anything from eating healthier and exercising more to saving money and spending more time with the family. According to studies, almost 40% of Americans make New Year’s Resolutions, and a significant majority of them are optimistic about the outcome.
However, despite the resolutions’ popularity, a surprisingly low percentage are seen through. Research shows that only 9% of those who make such resolutions actually stick to them, with most striking out within the first few weeks—honestly, you’d think we’d have it nailed after 4 millennia! In fact, this is such a common phenomenon, the second Friday in January is known (unofficially) as “Quitters’ Day.”
So why do we keep on making resolutions every year, if most of us are doomed to fail?
Well, the start of the New Year marks a new beginning. It gives us an opportunity to reflect upon the year that has passed and to ponder what we have done and could have done better. It offers a blank slate on which to plan for new experiences and an improved self in the year ahead. And the date, though ultimately arbitrary, provides the perfect starting point for setting and implementing personal goals.
The New Year also fosters optimism and inspiration. Psychologically, it ushers in a change of mindset. It stimulates a “can do” attitude which helps us believe we can create positive change in our lives. The excitement to be gotten from setting goals and hitting the “reset button” is a key reason many indulge in the activity.
Making resolutions also allows us to feel in control of our lives and how we want them to be. It allows us to hope we’ll find the strength to make the necessary changes for the better and sets a personal challenge for us to meet.
Finally, and fascinatingly, many of us make resolutions so we feel less guilty about over-indulging during the holidays. We justify our end-of-the-year extravagances by vowing to mend the damage we cause to our waistlines and our wallets in the New Year. I mean, there’s no reason to feel guilty about that fourth slice of cake, if you know you’ll definitely be hitting the gym in a week!
In essence, New Year’s Resolutions are an excellent example of the triumph of hope over experience. We all know the odds are stacked against us, but the opportunity to reflect, dream and promise a new and improved self is clearly too good to pass up.