Somewhere around 4,000 years ago, the Babylonians held the first recorded celebrations in honor of a new year. Following a 12 day celebration, the Babylonians pledged allegiance to their king and made promises to the gods. It was believed that if these promises were kept, they would be regarded in the gods' favor. Failure to do so could result in bad fortune.
Leaping ahead to 46 B.C, ancient Rome’s notorious emperor Julius Caesar, configured the calendar to have the new year start in January. Symbolically since the month is connected to the god Janus who’s double face looks both backwardly to the past and ahead to the future. Ancient Romans of the time acknowledged the event with religious sacrifice and promises of purer actions, which we now recognize as the precursor to the Resolution.
While no longer religious in intention, the instinct to reflect back on a period of time, and resolve to a more prosperous future is a deeply rooted feeling which we continue to this day. Presently we think of a new year's resolution as a fresh start, an opportunity to detox from the food rich, and alcohol liberal holiday season and make often lofty goals for slimmer bodies and higher paychecks.
The start of a new and fresh beginning has its allure. On the outset the idea of self betterment is a healthy and worthwhile venture. But as weeks droll on and interruptions and pressing commitments distract us from our goals, it's also too common to have a resolution burnout. In fact, close to 90% of resolutions end in failure, many of them by the first week of February. With so few resolutions achieved, it is natural to wonder why our ambitions are so easy to fail? And if they are so easy to neglect, what are the benefits of goal setting in the first place?
The answer to all of these lies somewhere in the importance of articulating our improvements, being comfortable with our failures, and connecting to what motivates us. In thinking about resolutions, we can possibly reframe how we think about the steps towards becoming more fulfilled human beings.
What is a resolution?
Defined as a firm decision to do or not to do something, a resolution is a determined and purposeful intention. As we know, historically these resolutions were originally in the form of promises to a higher power with drastic consequences. They had a moral and religious bent. Currently our modern understanding of resolutions is more toward personal improvement where the focus of the goal is on the self.
The results are fairly universal and uninspired hopes for ourselves. Exercise, eat healthier, quit smoking, and save more money are the bedrock of resolutions. While each of these is a worthwhile pursuit, they are ultimately superficial in their importance to us. In other words, a goal stands a higher chance of failure if we aren’t in some way truly connected to it, or motivated to achieve it. As humans we are naturally disposed to motivation, the survival of our species has always depended on it. Similarly, the will to live, to create, and explore all come from this fundamental driving force.
Motivation is also what makes us adaptable. Faced with new, often destabilizing experiences causes us to jump into action. The term “rise to the occasion” stems from this sentiment. If you have ever been a new parent, started a new business, had to provide, or help, or prove yourself in some way then you are intimately familiar with this feeling. Motivation is a powerful thing. Coaches, teachers, and politicians regularly use motivational science to bring out action and potential. But as it relates to ourselves and the way we set out to self improve, motivation can lead to changes in behavior that provide real and lasting change.
Why do so many fail?
Resolutions don’t make good for a variety of reasons. Starting anything new and seeing it through requires more than we think. Relying more on our habits and routine, we may not be fully aware of how ingrained our old habits are and how difficult they are to break.
Too often we set goals that are so far beyond our ability that they become more aspirational than achievable. While losing 30 pounds is certainly possible, large goals can intimidate and derail progress. Starting small with a more manageable expectation creates a series of successes that propels you forward.
Another sometimes underrated hindrance for any new year's resolution is that it starts in the new year where cold temperatures and waning daylight is a weight even the most gogetter types have a hard time from getting under. The biological strain of the light patterns and the elements make basic survival a challenge. Add in the flu season, potential sickness and low energy, it doesn’t quite make for the most winning combination. If you think back to those ancient Babylonians who celebrated the new year sometime in March at the turn of spring, where surrounding them was bursting new foliage and fresh vigor, it makes sense that they could drum up the willpower.
Since most of the new year's resolutions you can expect to hear of or make are so universal, they lack intrinsic motivation. Meaning, they come more from the messages we receive about self improvement and less about what actually moves us. Social pressures, or extrinsic motivation is probably the most common when it comes to a failed promise.
What purpose do resolutions have?
Given that so many resolutions are unsuccessful, why have them at all? While everyone has their own reasons for setting goals, there are a few reasons why it is ultimately helpful to do so.
Setting a goal creates clarity. A goal puts something otherwise abstract into a concrete vision that drives us towards accomplishing it. Articulating a desire for a particular outcome is the first step towards realizing it. Far from being the last step to an actually realized accomplishment, being able to identify and verbalize our needs and desires is that necessary foundational beginning. Finally when the goals we set are made with purpose the pursuit of that goal gives us meaning. And it is that feeling of meaning and purpose that brings us the truest happiness and mental health.
What can learn from our failures?
Even with clarity of mind and the best of intentions, failure happens and is by far more universal than success. To experience failure it tantamount to the human experience. Luckily failure is a great teacher and offers more benefits than one may expect. At its best, failure makes us better. When we fall short on a goal, we can learn what about that attempt was unsuccessful so that we can apply that knowledge in the future. Where some might give up, taking information from our missteps is invaluable.
If we don’t become somewhat comfortable with failing we might never get started and we might never end up where we want to be. If you are looking for ways to improve your well being in this new year, building the tools to succeed, tapping into what drives you, or what areas need attention are all useful things to aid in your efforts. Any and all kinds of improvement take a little manifesting. It takes hard work, careful planning, motivation, patience, but also support. In talking with a mental health professional, sustained work can be put into enriching those areas of your life and supporting you in this new year.