Where did New Year’s resolutions come from?

Lauren Crosby 29 December 2021

We all make them (and try our best not to break them) but do you know what the history and origins are? 

When I was growing up as a teenage girl, the five days between Christmas and New Year were eventless, but a perfect chance for my mum to make my sister and I sit down to write all our goals for the upcoming year. I can’t remember what my list consisted of, but I do recall the reading of books, eating healthily, and exercise always making the cut.

As a full-fledged adult, I’ve never once carried on the tradition of New Year’s resolutions. And yet, the history, popularity, and psychology of annual goal-making is fascinating, reaching back thousands of years to Babylonian times.

The history of New Year’s resolutions

“4000 years ago, the ancient Babylonians made promises to their gods at the beginning of their year, during an 11-day festival called Akitu, derived from the word for barley which was planted at that time,” says Juliet Landau-Pope, a social scientist who has studied how traditions develop and impact human behaviour. During the festival, Babylonians crowned their king, or reaffirmed loyalty to a reigning king, and promised the gods to pay their debts and return any borrowed objects.

Thousands of years later, Julius Caesar, the Roman emperor, adapted the concept of the new year when he introduced a new calendar that started in the month of January, named after Janus, the Roman god of beginnings. “Janus was known for his two faces, one looking to the past and one to the future,” Landau-Pope says. “The Romans offered sacrifices to Janus and made promises to win his favour. The early precursors of resolutions were affirmations of faith, aimed at appeasing the gods to protect communities—in other words, they reflected collective needs and concerns.”

"4000 years ago, the ancient Babylonians made promises to their gods at the beginning of their year, during an 11-day festival called Akitu"

Fast forward to 1813, and we find one of the first written uses of the phrase “new year resolutions” in a Boston newspaper:

“And yet, I believe there are multitudes of people, accustomed to receive 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.”

By this point, resolutions had become a chance to redeem all the bad habits and choices from the year before.

In 2022, New Year’s resolutions have changed as society has become more secure and secularised. “There’s more emphasis on eating healthily, exercising more, or working harder,” says Landau-Pope. “In modern times, resolutions have become more individualised.”

With the contribution of mass media, the pressure to form yearly goals continues as we flick through magazines, social media, radio and television channels. But are annual goals effective for change?

Do New Year’s resolutions work?

The start of a new calendar year provides a chance to reflect on the previous year—the achievements, shortcomings, and regrets—and start again with a fresh slate, invigorated with a “can-do” attitude to make changes in the days ahead.

But if you’ve ever made a New Year’s resolution before, you know how easily they can be forgotten and abandoned—leaving you with a sense of failure and guilt.

“Most people who make New Year’s Resolutions don’t achieve their goals for a variety of reasons,” says Landau-Pope. “The resolution is often too vague, without a clear and specific action plan. But the most common mistake is to make a resolution based on the expectations of other people.” When there is an intrinsic motivator, consistent with who you are and what you want, you’re more likely to achieve it and become the person you feel you want to be.

"The most common mistake is to make a resolution based on the expectations of other people"

“I love the idea of starting fresh at the beginning of a New Year,” says Helen Hopkins, Habit Change and Wellness Coach. “For me, it’s about stepping closer to the woman I want to be—the one who is happier, more in tune with her desires and hopes, and more in a flow.”

But Hopkins doesn’t advocate for the grand goals that will set a person up for failure. “It’s about starting small,” she says. “I teach the tiny tweak so you can be consistent. This could be as simple as a five-minute walk after breakfast. Become very specific about how that looks and make it as easy as possible. Like putting out your trainers the night before. Once you nail this tiny tweak, you can dial it up to say a ten-minute walk. And it’s as simple as that, start with something easy to achieve, feel great about doing it and start to do it more.”

Without setting goals, that change you desperately want may not materialise. One study found participants who made resolutions to change were ten times more likely to succeed than those who didn’t have plans of action. But with careful planning and realistic expectations, you can join the ranks of those throughout history who have used a new calendar year to spark change and new habits through New Year’s resolutions.

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