New Year’s Resolutions: A Balancing Act

image by Damir m Mijailovic (pexels)

By Tobias Hudson

It’s no surprise that New Year’s resolutions have taken on different forms throughout history, considering that they reflect the current values of society. The Babylonians first practised them 4000 years ago, following a religious festival called Akitu. They renewed their allegiances to the old king (or reworded them for the new man in charge), and performed rituals for Pagan gods. This included promises to repay debts and return borrowed objects.

In Rome, 46 B.C., Julius Caesar made changes to the calendar that we still follow today. January became the start of the year, so named after the two-headed Janus, a God who looked both forwards and backwards. People made promises to him in accordance with their mistakes of the past. And more recently in 1740, Christians started using their Covenant Renewal Service on New Year’s Eve as a means of self-reflection on the previous year.

Following this pattern, modern resolutions now reflect 21st century life. Religious rituals and promises have been replaced with an almost exclusively self-centred narrative that are a telling indication of the nation’s collective worries. It should come as no surprise that doing more exercise, losing weight, and eating healthily are the top picks for resolutions in modern society. What do these resolutions say about our current states of mind? To lose weight implies that our current weight is not sufficient, to eat better suggests that our current diet is not conducive to healthy living. It’s a sad thought that these are the same promises we make to ourselves year after year, with only 8% of UK citizens keeping to their resolutions.

Perhaps the problem lies in the tradition itself. The idea of starting afresh seems to allow us to go overboard in December, because we’re certain we have the power to “reset” on the first of the month. If my resolution is to give up alcohol, then surely I can drink myself silly throughout December because next year, I’m certain I won’t touch a drop. But the problem is in doing so, a level of guilt starts to form, like a skin on the Christmas gravy. We have to keep the resolution now, because it doesn’t just make our lives better, but it acts as a scapegoat to justify our behaviour in the holiday period. Suddenly thoughts start to fire off in our heads. What does it say about me if I can’t even make a tiny, beneficial change to my life? I’ve just eaten my own weight in chocolate, I can’t break this resolution. Not again.

So we try our hardest. But we’re tired, and probably feeling down. Money is tight, and it’s January, the coldest time of the year. All the pressure of having to keep the resolution looms over our heads, a self-imposed weight that we have to upkeep, to prove we have control over our own lives. So it really shouldn’t come as much of a surprise when many of us find, perhaps even within a matter of days, that we’ve gone back to our old ways. We wearily resign ourselves to the fact that there’s always next year, taking solace in similar stories of broken resolutions from friends and family.

Is there a solution? Maybe there doesn’t need to be one, maybe resolutions are not quite as big of a deal as I’ve made them out to be. Perhaps many set resolutions without any intention of keeping them. But for those who want to make a genuine change, I can imagine that a failed resolution can be upsetting, and hard to put into perspective. To be angry at ourselves seems fruitless. Our lives are short, so why dwell on small, meaningless failures? But on the other hand, carrying on like last year and not letting it bother us almost feels like giving up. It’s a lose-lose situation.

But I do think there are ways to tackle the issue. It’s crucial to recognise that the first of January holds only psychological power. The idea of turning over a new leaf can realistically be achieved at any point throughout the year. Perhaps it’s more suited to springtime, when the seasons bring new life and possibility. And of course, we’re constantly making changes to our lives without even noticing. Maybe we switched to a more sustainable laundry product on a whim, or decided to cycle to work instead of driving. These changes are often small but impactful, and occur with no planning whatsoever. Resolutions, on the other hand, are big and concrete, and leave little room for error. Especially if they’re too broad in scope. The definition of “eating healthily” can change depending on our own individual context and mood. The worst of days can have us checking the natural sugars in a banana and shaking our heads.

I make no claims that New Year’s resolutions are a waste of time, because having the ability to turn over the page, both physically and metaphorically is almost certainly a catalyst for change. But it’s worth considering that like most things, it’s a fine balance, and the acrobat who tries too hard will invariably fall from their rope. The mere action of making a task mandatory can render it a chore, even if the previous day we would have done it without a second thought. And in a society that no longer relies heavily on religion, perhaps resolutions have been made redundant. We no longer need blind faith and a ceremonious ritual to give us comfort that the crops will grow, or that our children will recover from illness. Society has granted us a much more stable and comfortable way of life that can sometimes be easy to overlook. 

So, for those that really want to make a change, perhaps a slower, more thoughtful approach is the way forward. Simply blurting out the first idea that comes to mind and hoping we’ll stick to it is not enough. And why should it be? Fundamental shifts in thought and important changes to society have always taken time and a strong will. It rarely happens overnight. So I propose that a failed resolution can be optimistic, a sign of dreams and ideas that can’t yet be fully realised. They shouldn’t be ignored, but rather nurtured and allowed to flourish. And in the bleak, foreboding world we currently find ourselves in, I can think of no better way to spend our time.