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The Unofficial History Of Making And Breaking New Year’s Resolutions

The gifts have been opened, the holiday roasts carved and the cookies consumed. There is just one step left before we can allofficially call the holiday season complete for another year: It’s the part where we all resolve to become better people in 2021.

New Year’s resolutions will certainly be different this year. For example, we imagine there will be far fewer impulse gym memberships this year, with a lot of home workout equipment taking its place as a large swath of Americans who’ve eaten their way through the last three months (or the entire pandemic period, if we’re being truly honest with ourselves) resolve to get back into shape. We imagine the New Year’s diet will, as ever, remain in favor among the average person, as many of us embrace plans to include a lot more vegetables and fewer comforting snacks in our grocery orders. We also imagine that countless Americans will likely resolve to get back to wearing pants in the new year.

But though the resolutions may be somewhat modified to reflect the tenor of the times, there are some traditions that don’t break, or even bend, all that easily. And as it turns out, New Year’s resolutions are old. Really old.

The first New Year’s resolvers were in fact Babylonians, who began resolving to do new and better things in accordance with their annual celebrations 4,000 years ago. They were also, according to historians, the first people in history to treat a new year as a time to party. Their celebrations, however, were a bit different than ours. Called Akitu, the Babylonian New Year was celebrated in March alongside the annual planting of crops. It was 12 days long, and the resolutions were as big a part of the party as promises to the gods to pay debts and return borrowed goods. If they kept their resolutions, the gods would reward them – if not, they would fall out of favor until the next year.

The Romans carried on with the New Year tradition, but moved the holiday to January – a tradition that early Christians carried on with, making it a time for “thinking about one’s past mistakes and resolving to do and be better in the future.”

For the last 50 or so years, however, New Year’s celebrations in the U.S. have been mostly secular, as have been the resolutions that issue from it. And it is perhaps the lack of divine wrath for failing to live up to one’s New Year’s promises that explains Americans’ frankly dismal track record for sticking with them. Though a little under half (45 percent) of Americans make at least one New Year’s resolution each year, only about 8-12 percent actually follow through on their goals for the entire year.

Why, with nearly 4,000 years of practice, are human beings so bad at this?

According to psychologists, most resolutions are made in more of a hoping or wishing mindset, not in the mindset of a human being making a serious plan. As a result, people tend to keep resolutions to themselves instead of announcing them as public plans – which makes it a lot easier to beg off said resolutions when it turns out they’re harder than anticipated.

“When you keep resolutions a secret, no one is going to check up on you. You’re only accountable to yourself,” said Joe Ferrari, professor of psychology at DePaul University in Chicago. He noted that sharing opens up public accountability, which helps people follow through.

Also critical, the experts note, is keeping resolutions reasonable and limited. Looking to lose 10 pounds by April is achievable if hard, but aiming to lose 60 pounds and learn to speak French in the same time period is both unhealthy and impossible.

“Don’t try and do everything,” Ferrari advised. “Take things on one at a time.”

And, as always at this time of the year, there is no shortage of expert sources helping consumers build their best and most doable resolution lists. The New York Times is preaching, in the name of keeping the list manageable this time around, that we all need to “downsize” our ambitions when it comes to setting goals and keep the bar “extremely low.”

That advice is echoed by Kate Morton, a registered dietitian and founder of Funk It Wellness, in an interview with InStyle. Resolutions with misery built-in – like a painfully unpleasant exercise routine – are bound to fail. Resolutions, Morton noted, are only manageable for people who actually want to manage them, so make it easy and choose exercise and diets that have some appeal.

Because though we no longer believe the gods will punish us for failing to live up to our New Year’s promises, most of us will find ways to punish ourselves if the plan to become a yoga master in the first eight weeks of 2021 doesn’t quite pan out. And perhaps, just this year, it might be time to give ourselves a pass – after all, 2020 was punishment enough for everyone.

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