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Exploring the history behind New Year's resolutions

Each January, thousands of people across the world ring in the new year by setting a goal. But how did this tradition begin? We look at the history of New Year’s resolutions.

How did New Year’s resolutions start?

ancient babylonian carvings new year's resolutions

The first New Year’s resolutions date back over 4,000 years ago to ancient Babylon. The Babylonians are said to have started the tradition during Akitu, a 12-day New Year celebration.

During the Akitu festival, the ancient Babylonians would plant crops, crown a new king (or pledge their loyalty to the reigning king), and make promises to the gods to pay their debts and return any borrowed items. They believed that if they kept their word, the gods would look favourably on them for the year ahead. If the Babylonians broke their promises, they would fall on the bad side of their gods.

The history of New Year’s resolutions continued in ancient Rome. Emperor Julius Caesar introduced a new calendar in 46 B.C. which declared January 1st as the start of the new year. This new date honoured Janus, a two-faced god who symbolically looked back into the previous year and forwards into the new year. The Romans would offer sacrifices to Janus and make promises of good behaviour for the year ahead.

New Year’s resolutions were also made in the Middle Ages. Knights would renew their vow to chivalry by placing their hands on a live or roasted peacock. The annual “Peacock Vow” would take place at the end of the year, as a resolution to maintain their knighthood values.

RELATED CONTENT: A brief history of Black Friday

Modern-day New Year’s resolutions

writing goal checklist new year's resolutions

New Year’s resolutions appeared to be common by the 17th century. In 1671, New Year’s Scottish writer Anne Halkett wrote a diary entry that contained several pledges such as “I will not offend anymore”. Anne wrote the entry on January 2nd and titled the page “Resolutions”.

By 1802, the tradition of making (and failing to keep) New Year’s resolutions was common enough that people satirised the practice. Walker’s Hibernian Magazine wrote a series of joke resolutions such as “Statesmen have resolved to have no other object in view than the good of their country…”

A Boston newspaper from 1813 featured the first recorded use of the phrase ‘New Year resolution’. The article states:

“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.”

The history of making and breaking New Year’s resolutions continues to this day.

Why do people make New Year’s resolutions?

man hiking mountain top

Modern New Year’s resolutions are a largely secular practice, with most people making resolutions to themselves rather than promising gods. The focus of the tradition is on self-improvement, with people taking time to reflect on their goals.

Today’s resolutions are often health focused, driven by the indulgence of the Christmas period. The symbology of the New Year also makes it a great time to wipe the slate clean and start fresh after December 31st.

At least 40% of people in the United States set New Year’s resolutions, while 22% of people in the UK aim for self-improvement with a resolution.

Yet, research shows that 80% of people break their resolutions by the first week of February and only 8% are successful in achieving their goals at all.

Despite having over 4,000 years of practice, these figures aren’t likely to improve any time soon. Experts say we’re doomed to fail when making New Year’s resolutions thanks to unrealistic expectations.

We set lofty goals that quickly become overwhelming, and we fail to make a plan to achieve these goals. The key to completing your resolution is to break it down into small, tangible steps. Instead of saying, “I want to get fit”, set a specific goal like going to a gym class every Monday and Wednesday.

The most popular resolutions

couple running new year's resolutions

Are you looking for inspiration for your New Year’s resolutions in 2020? Here are some of the most common resolutions made on January 1st each year.

  • Eat healthier
  • Exercise more
  • Lose weight
  • Save more money and pay off debt
  • Learn a new skill or hobby
  • Travel more
  • Watch less TV
  • Read more
  • Find a new job
  • Volunteer with a charity
  • Start your own business
  • Quit smoking
  • Drink less alcohol
  • Spend more time with family and friends

Are any of these New Year’s resolutions on your list? Let us know what you hope to achieve in 2020.

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