It’s that time of the year again. “New Year, New Me” statements have started flooding our newsfeeds. It’s that time when we make barren promises to ourselves about exercising every day for the next year or controlling our spending or learning a new skill and so on. I too have been guilty of indulging in these New Year’s promises for many years. However, those promises last about 12 days for most people. Research conducted by Strava, the social network for athletes, has discovered that January 12th, is usually the fateful day of New Year’s resolutions. A whopping 60% of us get so excited by this prospect of ‘New Year’s resolutions’ that we take the time to make numerous hopeless resolutions which only about 8% of us actually achieve. Let me first explicate the origins and thought behind this notion before I get into the reasons for its pointlessness.
This notion dates all the way back to the Babylonians around 1800 BC who made promises to their gods at the start of each year that they would return borrowed objects and pay their debts. This continued in ancient Rome, where they began each year by making promises to the god ‘Janus’, for whom the month of January is named. ‘New Year’ was later assigned significance by some major religions such as Judaism who celebrate ‘Rosh Hashanah’ – the Jewish new year, where they reflect upon last year and hope for a better forthcoming year. Having begun in Babylon about 4000 years ago, this notion of ‘New Year resolutions’ still exists; dare I say, stronger than ever. Despite its religious roots, New Year’s resolutions today are a mostly secular practice. Instead of making promises to the gods, most people make resolutions only to themselves, and focus purely on self-improvement. This secularisation of ‘New Year’s resolutions’, in my opinion, lowered the success rates further as people in the religious context were held accountable by God/s, however, if I do not go to the gym now or do not acquire a new skill every day, who is to hold me accountable? That is not to say we cannot hold ourselves accountable for not holding on to our promises but when the Babylonians did not keep to their word, they would fall out of God’s favour- a place where no one wanted to be. In the secular context, we need not to worry about such consequences for not upholding our promises and can easily just move on from them most of the time.
So why do so many people still hold on to this ancient tradition? Well, there are multiple reasons. Firstly, it is human nature to set goals at the start of something new, making the start of the New Year the perfect time to set new goals and expectations for the forthcoming year. People seem to just love clean slates- something about a fresh start that resonates. Secondly, in my opinion, there is a compelling psychological aspect to it: the creation of meaning for oneself. This is where Victor Frankl’s idea of ‘Man’s constant search for Meaning’ helps us interpret this tradition as a way of creating meaning for oneself to avoid what he calls the ‘existential vacuum’- a condition where lack of meaning in life makes one suffer mentally. There are probably many other reasons, but these are some of the most prevalent ones.
Let us get into why this notion, which the majority of us practice year in year out, is not only pointless but damaging to ourselves- at least for some of us. Firstly, as evident from the statistics provided above, a ridiculously small number of those who make the resolutions actually succeed meaning the huge majority fails to keep the promises. This failure at the beginning of the year could negatively affect our mental health. It not only makes us think that if we have failed at the beginning of the year, the rest of the year must be full of such failures, but also, elicits negative emotions by reminding us of things wrong with us which we think we need to change. As a result, we place ourselves in a position of stress and disappointments and for those who are already suffering from mental illnesses such as depression or anxiety, it gets worse.
The failure of these resolutions, for the most part, is caused by the impracticality and over-ambitiousness. We are just bad at setting goals that are reasonable, for instance, setting goals of exercising 5 times a week or acquiring a new skill every day for the next year seems slightly unreasonable. When we set goals, we think of ‘what we want’ rather than ‘what we want that we can achieve’. We either think too much of ourselves or we just knowingly set ourselves for failures. Moreover, it is simply impractical to expect to change your mindset overnight at the beginning of the year. Why can’t we just start on these very goals in let’s say April or October or any other part of the year? What is so special about 1st January, apart from being a nice round beginning date? I find this whole notion toxic and damaging as we have started to see the beginning of January as the only day that we can begin self-improvement and if we fail, we must wait for next year to have a “fresh start”.
This cursed notion has survived for about 4000 years and it will continue to do so regardless of however many times me or someone else writes about the damages it can cause. It is a curse we simply must live with, but perhaps we can find ways to make it less damaging and increasingly become part of the 8% that succeed…