January 27, 2016

As February Approaches, We Look Back on Our New Year’s Resolutions.

Photo courtesy of Miguel Angel Pintanel Bassets via Flickr.

As January draws to an end, the gym gradually returns to its ordinary pace. New faces no longer outnumber the regulars who know to avoid the treadmill with the broken console. Life reverts to normal. The drive fueling the New Year’s resolutions wanes for a multitude of reasons – the icy sidewalks, Super Bowl fever and your dog’s unexpected trip to the vet with follow-up treatment.  

You have the Babylonians to blame for your discomfort as you realize that January is almost over and you have not even started on the tasks you were so determined to tackle. But you are not alone. History is on your side. The ancient Egyptians who celebrated every new calendar year with the flooding of the Nile would seek their gods’ good favor by making promises. They would most often resolve to get out of debt. And that was 4,000 years ago. Although their success rate was not measured by polls, most of the mythology from the era suggests that loan-sharking continued to flourish as the debts amassed.

Today, 45 percent of Americans make resolutions (www.statisticbrain.com) but only 8 percent will successfully achieve their goal.  Mark Twain’s commentary published on Jan. 1, 1863, in the Territorial Enterprise, a Nevada newspaper, shows that low success rates are nothing new.

Mark Twain quote

But what about other parts of the world – do they engage in this almost universally self-defeating exercise? According to sociologist Isidor Thorner, in a 1951 study published in Social Forces, University of North Carolina, New Year’s resolutions were more of a “tradition” amongst people from English-speaking countries where Protestant values were heavily influential, such as in Australia, England, Wales, Scotland, Northern Ireland and South Africa. This was due to the need to free oneself from indulgences, and to be properly organized and able to dedicate one’s effort and time to religious duties.  Based on some informal surveying of other parts of the world, Thorner found that people in at least 22 primarily non-English-speaking countries –throughout Scandinavia, Eastern Europe, Latin America and Asia –did not recognize the idea of making personal New Year’s resolutions.

Although I have not performed any research, I would say resolution making has evolved into more of a fun-filled way to convince ourselves that we will improve some part of ourselves or our lives in the coming year. I doubt the linguistic divide between the resolution makers and abstainers would hold.

When I lived in Japan in the late’80s, Japanese people did make New Year’s resolutions. Many went as far as to stylized their resolutions by using writing brushes to paint them onto scrolls and then hang them on their walls.  Although I have no evidence to support it, I assume that their success rate was not marginally greater than what the studies have shown in the U.S. The scroll practice no more guaranteed the likelihood of success but did increase levels of discomfiture when the scrolls disappeared just a few weeks later.


Photo courtesy of the Asian Art Museum via Flickr.

Were we able to measure it, I suspect we would find that many people in the world strive to “enjoy life to the fullest” (the most popular resolution among Americans for 2016  www.time.com). The individual constraints and opportunities we face are obviously not the same and are considerably different depending on where we live. However, if we focus on the spirit of this one simple resolution, it may not keep everyone at the gym or slow down people’s spending past the February blues but it may result in people smiling more often. And that alone would be a good reason to start making and keeping New Year resolutions again.


Photo courtesy of Vee via Flickr.



  1. William says:

    For many years I fell into the trap of setting aggressive personal goals to try and reverse habits that had taken years to form. By February, it was back life as usual.
    Today , and for the past five years, I set intentions. A direction to course correct or begin a new path. Usually no more than five areas for quality of life enhancement. I can look back and see progress rather than failed resolutions.

  2. Greg says:

    Whether we stick to our resolutions or not, there are still those first few months in January when you eat better, exercise more, express more gratitude, or live life to the fullest – which is better than nothing!

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