The futility of New Year’s resolutions


The only New Year’s resolution I ever kept was the last one I made. And that resolution, from 20 or so years ago, was to never again make a New Year’s resolution.

Like most people I used to make noble resolutions about losing weight, spending more time with family and friends, drinking less, exercising more, all that malarkey. Sometimes I even kept those resolutions for a few weeks, but they never lasted. The intention was good but the willpower or self-discipline to carry through was never there.

Even more foolish, people make resolutions to find true love, have a baby, find a better job or win the lottery; things they really have no control over and are more in the realm of wishful thinking. But then again, most resolutions are. Some people are even foolish enough to make a resolution to keep their New Year’s resolutions.

Someone once estimated that more than 50% of North Americans resolved to spend more time with family and friends every year, and maybe the odd angelic soul actually does. Another big one is getting fit (closely connected to losing weight) and this is very popular judging by the increase in the number of people working out at the Collicutt Centre the first week in January. But most of them stop coming by the third week in January and only the diehards, and those who make fitness a real part of their lives, are still there in February.

A resolution has to be specific, and preferably simple, like going to the gym three times a week, or always wearing clean underwear just in case, and even then most of us don’t have the self-discipline to keep it. Something like enjoying life more or learning something new are too vague and can easily become an excuse to keep loafing, avoiding exercise, keep smoking, drinking more, whatever.

Another resolution made by many is to help others. This is an easy one to do, just volunteer for your favourite organization. Once you do get involved with the Food Bank or whatever, you’ll probably hang in for a few months at least because you’ll quickly see you can make a difference. But the fact that every organization in town is always seeking volunteers tells us not enough of us are doing it.

Research shows that few resolutions are kept. One survey indicated that while 52% of participants were confident they would keep their resolutions, only 12% actually did. However, the same research showed that men were more successful if they made the resolution specific, like losing a pound a week. It also showed that women were more successful if they made their goals public and got the support of their friends. Another survey indicated over 30% of resolutions didn’t last a week.

Okay, so the same research shows there are some paragons of virtue who actually keep their resolutions, but most of us have been making and failing to keep New Year resolutions for a long time. Making foolish resolutions goes back to 153 B.C. and has something to do with Janus, the two-faced Roman god. He looked forward and back at the same time, just like a resolution, and rather appropriately the Romans named the first month of the year January after him.

Apparently that’s when the idea of making resolutions at the beginning of a New Year started, and no doubt when Romans started making New Year resolutions that they didn’t keep either. But we’re an optimistic bunch by nature and keep trying.

Mark Twain perhaps said it best. “New Year’s Day … now is the accepted time to make your regular annual good resolutions. Next week you can begin paving hell with them as usual.”

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