Whether your goal is to drop a few pounds, take a social media hiatus, or get your finances in order, over half of all Americans make a New Year’s Resolution…..most even keep them (at least for a couple of days!).
But how many of us actually know the backstory of this promise to do better and try harder?
The history of the New Year’s Resolution stretches back a lot further than you may suspect – thousands of years. Originally there were religious connotations in the tradition, which is more popularly a Western Hemisphere concept.
The idea of honoring the New Year with a celebration began around 4,000 years ago with the Babylonians, who made promises to their gods at the start of each year that they would return borrowed objects, pay their debts and reaffirm their loyalty to the reigning king.
It was the Romans, under the rule of Julius Caesar, who determined that the celebration should occur in January. The Romans began the year by making promises to the god Janus, for whom the month of January is named. Janus was a ‘two-faced god who looks backward into the old year and forward into the new.’ The tradition of making New Year’s resolutions began during the reign of Caesar. At the time, New Year’s resolutions were of a moral nature, such as being kind to others.
In the Medieval era, knights took the ‘peacock vow’ at the end of the Christmas season each year. Their ritual involved take turns placing their hands on either a live or roasted peacock and reaffirming their commitment to chivalry and then eating the peacock.
Puritans in Colonial America chose to avoid indulgences associated with New Year’s celebrations, as well any other holiday. Instead they urged their children to skip the revelry and spend their time reflecting on the year past and contemplating the year to come.
Early Christians established January 1st as a time of meditation on one’s past errors and resolving to be more accountable for one’s actions in the future. In 1740, John Wesley created the Covenant Renewal Service, which was held on New Year’s Eve or New Year’s Day. The service was initiated as a time to read scripture, sing hymns, pray and make resolutions for the New Year.
Though many cultures and creeds have influenced the tradition, today the concept of celebrating the New Year and making a resolution is seen as a light-hearted bit of fun.
Experts suggest setting a positive, realistic goal. Coined by the journal Management Review in 1981, it was recommended a resolution be SMART: Specific, Measurable, Achievable, Relevant and Time-bound.
Even if the majority of them fail (and quickly) there is evidence that just making a resolution in the first place is better than not. According to a study by psychologist John Norcross, individuals who have committed to effect change in their lives in the form of a New Year’s resolution are 10 times more likely to see that change occur than individuals who haven’t set any specific goal.