Why in the world do we make new year resolutions when we’re likely to fail?

By Emilee

Featured image by Isaac Smith

1 January has a “magical” effect on the human psyche. For some reason, that merry date generates excitement about a new year, a fresh start. Billions around the world celebrate with fireworks, singing ‘Auld Lang Syne’, and crystal ball “drops”. (Well technically they’re lowered, but it doesn’t sound nearly as dramatic.) In Japan, millions perform hatsumode, which is the first shrine visit of the year. In the Philippines and some parts of Latin America, party-goers eat 12 grapes just before midnight for good luck — 1 grape for each month. In Mexico and Colombia, those with wanderlust walk around their block with empty suitcases to usher in a year full of travels.

But why does 1 January feel so different from say, 2 January, 14 June, or 26 August?

New year resolutions we’re making in the Global South?

According to YouGov’s New Year’s Resolutions for 2017 in APAC, respondents were most concerned about saving money, followed by health and travel. (Refer to infographic below)

Within APAC, there were some relatively unique responses. For instance, Filipinos (43%) and Vietnamese (57%) counted ‘getting groomed’ among their top 5 resolutions. Australians (26%), Hong Kongers (43%), Singaporeans (43%) and Thais (38%) wanted to get more sleep. Indonesians (36%) and Vietnamese (53%) wanted to see more of their friends and families.

In India, respondents vowed to fight ‘fake news’, even while admitting that there was a WhatsApp addiction problem.


Why is there such excitement around making new year resolutions?

Humanity’s earliest records show that new year celebrations were linked to agricultural life. Much of it was to curry favour with the gods, in exchange for a bountiful harvest. For instance, the Babylonians would promise to repay their debt and return borrowed objects during Akitu, a 12-day festival to mark the coming of Spring. Another example: the ancient Egyptians would make sacrifices in July for the Nile’s annual flood that led to particularly fertile soil — and harvests.

When the Romans took over, the date changed to 1 January. That happened because of Julius Caesar’s new 12-month calendar, which effectively added three months to the year, and shifted the calendar’s focus away from agriculture to the first day of work for the newly-elected consuls. “January” was named after Janus, the Roman god of beginnings and endings.

Resolutions began to take on a more moral flavour, influenced by Christians in Medieval Europe. But by 1813 the “new-year resolutions”, as they had come to be known, had lost the religious gravitas and were in fact sometimes being satirised as making unrealistic pledges.


The million dollar question: Why do we still make new year resolutions even though we’re probably not going to keep them?

The statistics of new year resolutions are not terribly encouraging. Whichever way we look at the data, the large majority of us will break them. According to YouGov research, 38% of people living in APAC would have broken their resolutions by February. Only 1 in 6 claim to have never broken a resolution. A pan-India study by mobile health and fitness app company HealthifyMe found that 82% of respondents broke their fitness resolutions by January.

But according to the “fresh start effect”, there is just something about special days that leads us to do this.

Researchers HengChen Dai, Katherine Milkman and Jason Riis found evidence for the fresh start effect, from an increase in Google searches for items related to aspirational goals, after a “salient temporal landmark”. These may be personal life events such as an anniversary or birthday, or more general reference points in the calendar such as a new week/month/year, or a holiday. And that’s because our brains use these landmarks in time to organize autobiographical memories.

They propose that our brains use these special calendar dates to do some mental accounting, in which all imperfections belong to a past self. This means that we see ourselves in a more flattering light. Our present self is a new creature, a new person. And that gives us the chutzpah to make new resolutions, even though the odds of success are really not in our favour.

More research needs to be done about how the fresh start effect works. But for now, the research is enough to explain another phenomenon — one that involves marketers’ use of the fresh start effect. Our mailboxes tend to be fuller-than-usual at the turn of the year with all sorts of ads and reminders to sign up for exercise, diet, health, money-saving, and self-actualisation services and apps. Try it, and let us know.

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