Why Do We Make New Year’s Resolutions?

(Last Updated On: December 6, 2019)
Why Do We Make New Year’s Resolutions?

Whether it’s losing a few pounds, spending more time reading, or perhaps getting around to cleaning up the house, the new year generally comes with a tide of New Year’s resolutions. These ideas are generally things that people put together in an attempt to try and start a new year off on a more productive foot. However, a lot of the time, this doesn’t follow through in practice. On average, 80% of New Year’s resolutions fail.

If there’s any silver lining here, it’s the fact that this means you’re not the only person struggling to keep to your New Year’s resolution. However, what you may not realize is that people have been grappling with the same problem for literally thousands of years. Here’s how New Year’s resolutions came to be, as we know it.

The Origins of New Year’s Resolutions

Interestingly, the origins of New Year’s resolutions date all the way back to the ancient Babylonians and a similar tradition that revolved around their holiday of Akitu. Akitu was a 12-day series of celebrations designed to commemorate the “rebirth of the natural world.” This generally took place around March. 

During this time, the Babylonians would plant a new set of crops, pay debts, and either crown new kings or reaffirm allegiance to an existing one. Another important step they took, perhaps the most important for this conversation, is making promises to their gods. These were the first New Year’s resolutions in human history. Babylonians felt that if they made these promises during Akitu and held to them, the gods would reward them with favor. However, the stakes back then were probably a lot higher than trying to lose 10 pounds by summertime. 

The Babylonians gave us the concept of the resolution, but how exactly does this align with the new year? We owe that to the ancient Romans, who are well known for borrowing concepts from cultures that they either interacted with or subjugated. Around 153 BC, the Romans originated the concept of January 1st as the start of the New Year, as a tribute to the god Janus. Janus is notable for having two faces, and this had significance for the Romans as he could look back at the old year and forward to the new year at the same time. When Julius Caesar obtained power, it marked a shift in basing years from agrarian cycles to civil rotations in the Senate

While the Roman concept of keeping time still holds true today, they also borrowed the concept of making promises to Janus regarding the new year, just as the Babylonians once did. 

Modern Incarnations

The link between the Roman concept of resolutions and as we know them today is a bit unclear. Some accounts from the Middle Ages refer to the “Peacock Vow.” Knights would put their hand on a live or roasted peacock at the end of each year to uphold the vows of knighthood for the next year.

However, what’s probably closer to the origin of modern New Year’s resolutions starts in 1740. This year, English clergyman and founder of Methodism John Wesley created the Covenant Renewal Service. This is generally held on New Year’s Eve or New Year’s Day, and was designed to serve as a quiet, religious alternative to a lot of the wild celebrations taking place on those days. Still around today, worshipers take this time to reflect on the year, sing, pray, and worship.

However, the first secular mention of New Year’s resolutions as a concept comes from a Boston newspaper in the 19th century. This period of American history best represents when New Year’s resolutions evolved from a spiritual pledge to a pledge of self-improvement. And now, along with this, roughly a third of all Americans still commit to some type of resolution today, regardless of their faith. Some of the most common pledges include losing weight, saving money, and getting out of debt.

If you’re thinking about a resolution of your own, many experts feel that people fail by not putting together an action plan to see their resolution through. So, it may be a good idea to start thinking before the 1st on how you can make your resolution a reality.

Be sure to read this article to learn the history behind another New Year’s tradition–Auld Lang Syne.