New year, same old you: the pros and cons of resolutions

Every New Year, as the bells strike midnight, millions of people across the world make a promise, a resolution to become a better person. Our relationship with the New Year’s Resolution, however, is a fraught one. Many make a promise that will fizzle out as the year advances only to be half-heartedly re-affirmed when New Year rolls around again. Some have given up on the concept altogether. Born from the idea that a New Year is a fresh start, could the New Year’s Resolution really be as positive as it appears? A fresh start in a consumer driven culture translates into a new outfit, pair of trainers, exercise DVD, haircut, car, and those unrealistic resolutions where we promise ourselves the moon only set us up for failure and disappointment. It can seem that the New Year’s Resolution has become simply a fad driven by, and for, our western consumer society.

Originally a New Year’s resolution was related to religion and devotion, mostly a Western religious concept. The Romans made promises to the god Janus, after who January is named. In English tradition, Medieval Knights would take the peacock vow after Christmas to re-affirm their pledge of chivalry. During the Watchnight service in Christian tradition, held on New Year’s Eve, Christians reflect on the year, confess sins, pray and resolve to be better next year.

Today, however, this connection to religious or national devotion is barely recognised. Even if the resolution does retain its personal importance it is mostly led by social rather than religious pressures. Modern resolutions are made with reference to social values, looks, relationships and career success, and failure is somewhat expected. Statisticbrain.com posted a list of the top ten New Year’s Resolutions made in 2015. Appearing from top to bottom they were: “Lose Weight, Get Organized, Spend Less, Save More, Enjoy Life to the Fullest, Stay Fit and Healthy, Learn Something Exciting, Quit Smoking, Help Others in Their Dreams, Fall in Love, Spend More Time with Family”. With a few exceptions, these resolutions speak of personal or social fulfilment, not of religious devotion, and of a consumer industry.

The most common resolution across the years is “Lose Weight”. The Guardian reported that, “According to the International Health, Racquet & Sportsclub Association, 12% of new gym memberships start in January and a high proportion of gym income is from members who sign up to lengthy contracts and then attend irregularly”. The diet industry is also a massive money maker. The brand Weight Watchers, for instance, sold to investment company Artal for 735 million US dollars in 1999, and the New Year’s Resolution of losing weight boosts this industry at the start of every year.

Whether this can be measured positively or negatively depends on your point of view, but what surely must be a negative aspect is the ingrained notion of failure. Continuously we make resolutions that are unrealistic or dependent on unpredictable factors (i.e “Fall in love”). When we don’t lose that 20lbs or find the partner of our dreams, our self-esteem and positivity drops. For those who give up their carefully planned resolution within the first week of the New Year, the very idea of a resolution loses meaning and importance. Considering all this, however, a New Year’s Resolution is a personal promise; if you fail the only person you are letting down is yourself, and, chances are, by beginning a clean slate at the start of a new year you are likely to get further than you would at any other time. This universal acceptance that New Year’s Resolutions usually fail simply alleviates the pressure. And when you are seeking to be a better person in an already socially pressured and consumer driven world, even a half-hearted resolution can’t hurt, right?

Image: imagesbywestfall

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