Oh, my gawd.  The New Year is here!

And coming with the year ahead are all those ambitious, dramatic—and myriad–promises we make.

We vow (and fervently!), “This year’s gonna be different ‘cause THIS TIME,  I’m gonna stick to my New Year’s Resolutions!”

Just like glue.

So, I thought it’d be rather nifty to explore the roots of this time-honored tradition and then examine the success rate of folks who make these pledges.

Historian Bill Petro writes that New Year’s Day celebrations originated in pre-Christian times, beginning with the Babylonians in March; however, the Romans changed the festivities to January.  (FYI:  The first month of the year gets its name from Janus, the two-faced god who looks backward into the old year and forward into the new one.)

Petro states, “The custom of setting ‘New Year’s resolutions’ began during this period in Rome, as they made such resolutions with a moral flavor: mostly to be good to others.  But when the Roman Empire took Christianity as its official state religion in the 4th century, these moral intentions were replaced by prayers and fasting.”

Now, fast-forward.  The historian adds that in the 18th century, “Puritans urged their children to spend their time reflecting on the year past and contemplating the year to come.”

And the following is quite noteworthy.  According to Petro, “The great American theologian Jonathan Edwards, brought up in New England Puritan culture, took the writing of resolutions to an art form.  During a two-year period when he was about 19 or 20 following his graduation from Yale, he compiled some 70 resolutions on various aspects of his life, which he committed to reviewing each week.”

What were a few of those seventy?  Here are three:

  • Resolved, in narrations never to speak anything but the pure and simple verity.
  • Resolved, never to speak evil of any, except I have some particular good call for it.
  • Resolved, always to do what I can towards making, maintaining, and establishing peace, when it can be without over-balancing detriment in other respects.

Success…Or Failure?

And just how successful are we in keeping our New Year’s resolutions?

Richard Wiseman, Professor of the Public Understanding of Psychology at the University of Bristol in the United Kingdom, conducted a study involving 3,000 individuals.  It showed that 88 percent of those who set New Year’s resolutions fail, although 52 percent of the participants were confident of success at the beginning.

According to Wiseman, “Men achieved their goal 22 percent more often when they engaged in goal setting (a system where small measurable goals are being set; such as a pound a week, instead of ‘losing weight’), while women succeeded 10 percent more when they made their goals public and got support from their friends.”

Author and researcher Ray B. Williams weighs in.  “Timothy Pychyl, a professor of psychology at Carleton University in Canada, says that resolutions are a form of ‘cultural procrastination’, an effort to reinvent oneself.  People make resolutions as a way of motivating themselves.” Pychyl argues, “People aren’t ready to change their habits, particularly bad habits, and that accounts for the high failure rate.”

Williams adds, “Another reason, says Dr. Avya Sharma of the Canadian Obesity Network, is that ‘people set unrealistic goals and expectations in their resolutions’.”

This striking failure rate can also be anatomical.  According to author Leo Widrich, willpower is required if we are to adhere to our resolutions.  “Your brain cells that operate willpower are located in the prefrontal cortex, which is the area right behind your forehead.  That particular area of the brain is also responsible for staying focused, handling short-term memory, and solving abstract tasks for example.”

Hence, when you make a New Year’s resolution, an enormous degree of willpower is required.   “It’s an amount that your brain simply can’t handle,” Widrich explains.  He adds that the prefrontal cortex that handles willpower is “like a muscle that needs to be trained.”

Therefore, exactly how do you keep your resolution(s)?  Widrich reveals how.

  • Pick only one resolution.“As Stanford’s (University) Prof. (Baba) Shiv explained with his ‘cognitive overload’ experiment, sticking to more than one New Year’s Resolution is near impossible for your brain to handle.  Instead…pick the one thing that’s most important for you.  Then, let go of everything else.”
  • Take baby steps—make it a tiny habit.“Now that you’ve picked one resolution, make sure to break it down as far as you can, to the simplest task possible.”
  • Hold yourself accountable for what you want to change: tell others or write it down.  “The people around you can have a significant impact on your behavior.  So if you tell some of your friends and family about the new tiny habit you’ve created, you are much more likely to stick to it.” Widrich adds, “Another hint here is that writing it down not only makes you more likely to succeed with your new habit and on top of that, increases your overall happiness.”
  • Focus on the carrot, not the stick—positive feedback and rewards increase your chance of success.  “A powerful study from the University of Chicago outlines how positive feedback on any of your new habits will increase the likelihood of your success with your new habits and resolutions.”  Adds Widrich, “Treating yourself to an unhealthy snack after a few days of successful diet habit changes is more than appropriate if you really want to make it through the other end.”

Now that you’re locked, loaded, and ready…make that resolution!  Or perhaps, resolutions?

And, let’s hope that 2022 will be shinier and brighter–with much more promise and potential!  Last year, Ms. ‘Rona and her cousins overstayed their welcome in one helluva huge and excruciating manner.