It’s a familiar sight: the gym parking lot packed for the first few weeks in January, swarmed by people with shiny new resolutions for the upcoming year. But as the days grind on, the fervor slowly begins to ebb.
Most people do not keep their New Year’s resolutions. According to Statistic Brain research collected in early 2018, only 9.2 percent of people feel they have been successful in achieving past resolutions. So if we’re not going to keep them, then why do we make them?
Dr. Jeffrey Romano, a psychologist with Long Island Health Care, said, “It’s an attempt to start the year off on a more positive note.”
Another answer may lie in tradition. The custom of making New Year’s resolutions began about 4,000 years ago, with the ancient Babylonians. During a 12-day religious festival in mid-March, known as Akitu, the Babylonians would pledge loyalty to their king and make “resolutions” to their gods to repay debts and return borrowed objects.
The tradition continued with the Romans, c. 46 B.C. The Julian calendar began the new year on Jan. 1, during the month named for the Roman deity Janus, their god of transitions. Double-headed, he was believed to have one face looking toward the new year with the other facing the previous. Romans would honor their god with sacrifices and resolutions of good conduct in the upcoming year.
Christianity later adopted a similar practice. The first day of the new year became time traditionally spent in prayer, reflecting on misdemeanors in the prior year and making resolutions to do better the next.
Now, the tradition has become more secular, with people mainly resolving to implement some form of self improvement, without deities or religious strings attached. According to a Marist poll rounding out 2017, 44 percent of Americans say that they are very likely or likely to make resolutions this year.
According to the same Marist poll, the leading resolution, at 16 percent, was to be a better person, edging out the number two resolution, to lose weight, at 10 percent, for the first time since 2014.
“If you have a good resolution, it’s all about meaning,” Stephen Post, director of the Stony Brook Center for Medical Humanities, Compassionate Care and Bioethics, said. “People should have nobility of purpose and when they want to aspire to it in a resolved way, they tend to prosper, they tend to flourish and have more gratifying lives.”
Post recommends writing resolutions down in a journal and coming back to them every day over a cup of tea, or during meditation.
“[Resolutions] should be challenging, but they should be plausible,” Post said. He added that sharing your goals may help you follow through on them.
Romano suggested making resolutions with a group of people. “To do it in isolation results in failure very often.”