While Americans make mostly health-related pledges every December 31, most don’t stick with them beyond the first half of the new year. In ancient times, resolutions were profound commitments to powerful deities, and there were serious consequences for not following through.
Acknowledging and celebrating seasons is an ancient practice. Like the beginnings of many modern traditions, New Year’s resolutions derive from milestones in the agricultural calendar and a devout appreciation of nature.
The Babylonians were the first recorded group to celebrate a defined new year, but the warming lushness of spring symbolized the new year in Mesopotamia. They didn’t have a ball drop or lip-syncing celebrities, but a 12-day festival called Akitu, which celebrated the gods of Earth and encouraged citizens to resolve any lingering debts and to make promises to their gods in the year to come.
In Rome, Julius Caesar established January 1 as the start of the new year. January’s namesake could be the Roman God Janus, a two-faced god that symbolized time, transitions, beginnings and endings. He could look into the future and the past at the same time.
When Christians became a force of moral standards in the Middle Ages, they kept with the theme of new beginnings and commitments but replaced pagan gods with the Christian God, and parties turned into prayer vigils. In Judaism, Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur hold similar ideas of forgiveness and starting over.
The common thread tying each era together is self-improvement.
The term “New Year resolution” gained momentum in the 18th century, and the religious undertones of the holiday faded and were replaced with bottles of champagne and personal commitments to betterment.
According to a Harvard Business Review study conducted by psychologist, researcher and New York Times bestselling author Tasha Eurich, most people believe they are self-aware, but only 10-15% actually are. Self-awareness is instrumental in successful relationships, careers and mental health.
Some researchers and authors, like James Clear, believe that true change comes from adjustments to small habits verses setting (and failing at) massive goals. Clear is the author of the New York Times best-seller “Atomic Habits.”
Perhaps a successful year of achieving goals could come from letting go of a deadline or a number and simply sticking to healthier habits. Whatever your New Year’s resolutions may be, it’s never too late to start working on them.