The end of the year is fast approaching, and I don't have a single resolution set for the new year. Am I worried? Absolutely not. Do I still want to develop on a personal level? Absolutely, yes, and yet I refuse to make another annual resolution. Going against this ancient tradition may sound downright blasphemous for the avid goal-setter. It may even sound overly confident or self-aggrandising, to reject self-improvement as a yearly activity. Who is this woman who doesn't feel the need to improve herself at the end of a long year?
You may gasp. It's almost too counter-culture to believe. But as someone who has studied behaviour change and goal setting for years, I have realised this: modern calls for resolutions are as vapid as they are fleeting. It's not that resolutions are inherently bad; it's that they rarely achieve your desired outcome, which is to live a happier, more fulfilled life.
In modern times, making a resolution is to better oneself. However, our self-improvement is limited to maintaining or achieving ideal weight and complexion, cheating age, and constantly trying to be more "fit." Instead of using our internal compasses, these external ideals have become the barometer of our worth. Year after year, we make these resolutions hoping that being a size six will miraculously make us happy or that waking up at 5 am for a run will solve our problems, yet year after year, we falter. If I have ever seen a more fruitless activity, making a resolution may be it.
And faltering is a more common activity than you may realize. According to the website Time and Date, January 17th is called Quitters Day, when most people ditch their well-meant resolutions. Can you believe it? A mere seventeen days after you set your resolution in motion, it suddenly drifts into oblivion. Your new workout clothes become loungewear, your gym memberships lie dormant, and you're the same person today as you were last year. I once saw a great meme that said this: "My new year's resolution is to lose ten pounds - only fifteen more to go." That sums up most of our collective efforts, year after year.
Without a doubt, however, resolutions, like goal setting, can be beneficial to people, and some people enjoy the process. If I was going to continue making resolutions, I had to honour my desire for self-improvement without compromising my desire to practice radical self-acceptance. It took a bit of digging into the historical origins of resolution-making that help find my answers.
First, I was surprised to learn that humanity has made new years resolutions for over 5,000 years, dating back to the ancient Babylonians. According to the Almanac website, the Babylonians had twelve days of festivities to mark the new agricultural year, and people would re-pledge their allegiance to kings. They made promises to pay debts, do the neighbourly thing, and return farm equipment. Moving forward in history, ancient Egyptians would make vows when the Nile flooded, the earth became fertile for farming again, and the Chinese honoured their ancestors in hopes of luck and prosperity for the new year. Later in history, Romans adopted this practice, but with their god, Janus (the two-faced god), resolutions were just as much about looking backwards as looking forward.
As I read over this history, I began to see that ancient resolutions were about survival. Back then, every year must have been thought of as a gift from the gods. How much we differ today.
Fast forward to the 17th century, New Year resolutions became less about food survival and started taking a religious tone. People started pledging to curb their temper or break destructive habits. Over time, as resolutions became more theoretical or wishful, breaking New Year's resolutions became a joke. In 1813, a Bostonian newspaper had this joke on breaking resolutions. "And yet, I believe there are multitudes of people, accustomed to receiving injunctions of new year resolutions, who will sin all the month of December, with a serious determination of beginning the new year with new resolutions and new behaviour, and with the full belief that they shall thus expiate and wipe away all their former faults."
In 2022, the top resolutions were to exercise more, lose weight, get organized and find a hobby. Our ancient counterparts might have scoffed at the easiness of our lives. Somewhere throughout history, we became less fearful of dying of hunger in the upcoming year and more afraid of overeating and putting on weight. We became less neighbourly and focused on our beauty or how we presented to others. I don't know who decided that weighing less and running marathons was the key to our happiness, but I have a sneaky suspicion it's a relatively small part of the equation.
An article called The History of New Year's Resolutions and Celebrations agrees with me. It quotes European historian Caleb Terry who says, "modern resolutions are now a projection of a society that does not have the same extreme needs from the past, we now live in a period of surplus and excess, so our resolutions have become simpler, secular, and more individualised."
Not surprisingly, the more I chased these simpler, secular, individual goals, the less happy I was. Losing two kilograms or adding an extra cardio session per week hardly hasn't made me happier, just as the same as advancing in my career or being more present for my son. To chase one ideal is to sacrifice another, and it's unhealthy to chase someone else's version of my best life.
So, what resolutions will help me self-improve but also make me happy?
I love the quote from Maya Angelou, which says, "You can't know where you are going until you know where you have been," and this couldn't be more apt when looking at my research on resolutions. I have no farm equipment to return (my apologies to anyone with an outstanding backhoe). Still, I also wanted to adopt a little of the Babylonian tradition and start the year without any debt, emotional or physical. This year, I choose to leave any unresolved emotional debt in 2022, be it my expectations for my career or home. What happened in 2022 shall stay in 2022. But, just like the Romans, I will take Janus's two-faced approach, reflect on what made 2022 a great year, and take the good with me in 2023. What did I learn from overcoming my past challenges? What skills did I acquire in doing so? And how might they make me a better person with my tasks ahead in 2023?
The beautiful thing about doing the self-work to understand me in the present before making a resolution is that my resolution will be grounded in facts, not wishful thinking. The result is that I will incrementally move in the right direction rather than wildly swing back and forth between creating unrealistic expectations for myself and failure. I'm setting out in this new direction, so wish me luck, my friends, and let's hope that by practising self-acceptance in the present, I can improve through self-love through every year ahead.
Jen Thomas is a Chennai-based weight loss coach