On January 1, 2013, my local gym was packed with people, including many new faces. I commented on this to the manager Brandon, who said, “Yep. This is the New Year’s resolution crowd, but most of them will be gone by March!” Surely enough, within a few weeks the crowd had thinned, and by March only the usual muscle heads and regulars remained.
On January 1, 2014, many people will resolve to get fit, quit smoking, lose weight, eat healthier food, take up a new hobby, get out of debt, or find a better job. Folk singer Woody Guthrie’s list of New Year’s resolutions for 1934 are currently doing the rounds of the Internet. These “Rulin’s” included, “Drink Very Scant If Any”, “Listen to Radio A Lot”, and, “Help Win War – Beat Fascism”.
Modern resolutions are often about changing social media habits. An article at Elite Daily suggests, “25 New Year’s Resolutions Every Person Should Actually Make for 2014”. These include, “Stop caring about how many people “like” your Instagram photos. If you like the photo enough to post it, what else matters? Social media anxiety is a waste of time”, and, “Stop posting negative sh*t about celebrities on social media. Miley Cyrus does not care what you think about her haircut, Justin Bieber does not care what you think of his tattoos and Gwyneth Paltrow couldn’t care less regarding what you think about her diet.” Others resolve to tweet less, deactivate their Facebook accounts, or actually start using LinkedIn.
In a few weeks the articles will change from suggested resolutions to how to make these resolutions stick. However, making a new year’s resolution is not the same thing as maintaining it. Just like those once-enthusiastic people at the gym, many end up breaking their resolutions. In 2009, Richard Wiseman conducted a survey of 3,000 participants who made New Year’s resolutions…and 88% broke them.
It’s unlikely that this mentality will change for those who set resolutions for 2014. If they fail, instead of jumping straight back on the horse, they will wait until a Monday to start again, or put it off until the first day of the next month, if not January 1, 2015.
The tradition of setting new year’s resolutions is often considered to be a secular one, although the ancient Babylonians, Romans, and Christians all had rituals and customs surrounding the start of a new year. Most of these aimed to attract good luck and prosperity throughout the year ahead, much like the modern tradition in the Southern United States to eat black-eyed peas on New Year’s Eve/Day for luck in the coming year. One website recommends that for the best chance of attracting good luck you should eat 365 black-eyed peas (…and presumably one more for a leap year).
I’ve always thought there is something faintly superstitious about making New Year’s resolutions. There seems to be some magical thinking behind the idea that a special date on the calendar or day of the week will be more effective. Of course, sometimes this is simply laziness or procrastination. Those who often seem to be most effective at keeping resolutions change their behavior immediately, or when they are ready to make changes, rather than waiting for a milestone date. Someone who can’t resist that slice of pumpkin pie in the final days of the year probably won’t be able to resist a slice of a colleague’s birthday cake at work the following week either.
So, at the risk of sounding like a motivational speaker, or a Nike commercial, if you want to make a change in your life, simply do it.
Mackenzie Newcomb. 2013. Elite Daily. http://elitedaily.com/life/25-new-years-resolutions-every-person-should-actually-make-for-2014/
Jonah Lehrer. 2009. Blame It On The Brain. The latest neuroscience research suggests spreading resolutions out over time is the best approach. The Wall Street Journal. http://online.wsj.com/news/articles/SB10001424052748703478704574612052322122442
Dr. Karen Stollznow is a linguist, author, skeptical paranormal investigator and a research fellow for the James Randi Foundation. You can follow Karen on Twitter here.