The New Year is upon us which means it is time for New Year’s Eve celebrations and New Year resolutions.    I have always been ambivalent about both.  In the previous blog, I gave my reasons to celebrate the New Year.  Now it is time to evaluate whether New Year’s resolutions do more harm than good and/or whether they should be seen as a waste of time.

In the previous blog, I concluded that motivation behind the New Year’s celebration and rituals is mankind’s survival.

But what about those New Year’s resolutions? Aren’t they about survival, too—living healthier, better, longer?  New Year’s resolutions are examples of the universal human desire to have some control over what lies ahead because the future is unsettlingly unknowable.  Not knowing what’s to come means we don’t know what we need to know to keep ourselves safe.  To counter that worrisome powerlessness, we do things to take control. We resolve to diet and exercise, to quit smoking and to start saving.  It doesn’t even matter whether we hold our resolve and make good on these promises.  Committing to them, at least for a moment, gives us a feeling of more control over the uncertain days to come.

Interestingly, New Year’s resolutions also commonly include things like treating people better, making new friends and paying off debts.  It’s been so throughout history.  The Babylonians would return borrowed objects. Jews seek and offer forgiveness.  The Scots go “first footing,” visiting neighbors to wish them well.  How does all this social “resolving” connect to survival?  Simple: We are social animals. We have evolved to depend on others, literally, for our health and safety. Treating people well is a good way to be treated well. “Do unto others as you would have them do unto you,” it turns out, is a great survival strategy.

And many people resolve to pray more.  That makes sense in terms of survival, too: Pray more and an omnipotent force is more likely to keep you safe.  Jews pray at the start of their new year to be inscribed in “the Book of Life” for one more year.  And though death is inescapable, throughout history humans have dealt with the fear of mortality by affiliating with religions that promise happy endings.  Pray more, and death is less scary.

It’s fascinating, really, to see how common so much of this is: Fireworks. Good-luck rituals. Resolutions to give us the pretense of control over the future. Everywhere, New Year’s is a moment to consider our weaknesses and how we might reduce the vulnerabilities they pose—and do something about the scary powerlessness that comes from thinking about the unsettling unknown of what lies ahead. As common as these shared behaviors are across both history and culture, it’s fascinating to realize that the special ways that people note this unique passage of one day into the next are probably all manifestations of the human animal’s fundamental imperative for survival.

Psychology offers further reasons why people make New Year’s resolutions.  Following are some finding by Edward Hirt, an IU professor of social psychology:

  • Many people make resolutions because they reflect on the past year and discover what they want to change.
  • Another reason many people decide to make these resolutions at that time is that a new year is a literal and symbolic transition in most people’s lives. It is a closing of one chapter and the opening of another.
  • When we hit transitions in our lives, it is natural to take stock of where we are. The tradition of making New Year’s resolutions formalizes this process.
  • Many effects of resolutions are positive, and it’s always a good idea to become aware of both good and bad habits.
  • New Year’s offers many a fresh start, but it isn’t the only time people better themselves. People often do it after tumultuous events or other life transitions, which serve to give us a chance to make a new start and reassess where we’ve been and where we’re going.
  • The goal of any type of personal improvement does not always lie in the result, but rather in the continuous goal of individual betterment.
  • The ultimate purpose is to engage in a period of self-assessment and set some concrete plans and goals for change in the coming year.

To reflect on the aforementioned:  New Year resolutions are not bad as they provide an opportunity to reflect on ways in which one can improve, personally or physically.  And all of us can always improve.

With 1 January approaching it is easy to get caught up in the excitement of seeing a new year as a perfect time for a fresh start.  After all most people have a mental list of habits they would like to change.

Research shows that nearly 50% of Americans participate in the New Year’s resolution tradition and that the percentage is growing annually.

However, studies show that 80% of New Year’s resolutions fail by February as people just can’t stick to the targets they have set for themselves on January 1st.  I admit I was amongst those who lie in the 80% who just can’t seem to keep that promise we made.

So why that?  Why do the majority of people spend the time to create New Year resolutions but slip back to similar ways after just 30 days or even less has passed?

In the next blog, we will focus on the psychology behind why we are so bad at keeping New Year’s solutions.  We need to identify what we can do to change this pattern of failing. Alternatively, we need to evaluate why you should not set a New Years’s resolution and what to do instead.