The Real Reason We Make New Year's Resolutions

For many of us, New Year's is a time of raucous celebration (though itt wasn't always this way). A time to party, joyfully sing, hug and kiss as the calendar ticks over into another year. Amid all the frivolity, though, it's a prime opportunity for something deeper than that.

We take stock of what was achieved in the year that just came to a close, acknowledge our successes, but should also spare a thought for our next steps. What can we do in the brand-new year ahead to make it even better? For people around the world, this often means that a New Year's Resolution — or several — is in order.

Some of the most common resolutions are quite predictable. For instance, a 2020 Statista survey reported that, of people in the United States who made resolutions, 42% resolved to eat more healthily, while 44% had made a resolution to get more exercise. The interesting thing is that, whether you commit to a resolution and achieve it or not (and author James Clear writes that "depending on where you get your numbers, somewhere between 81% and 92% of New Year's Resolutions fail"), you're taking part in a centuries-old tradition. Here's why we make New Year's resolutions.

New Year's resolutions and their tie to ancient religion

History reports that New Year's resolutions date back around 4,000 years, to the Babylonians. These ancient people weren't commiting to trying online dating or visiting the gym at least once a week, though. They celebrated the New Year later, at crop planting time in March, and they really went hard with their celebrations: The festival of Akitu lasted for 12 days.

As part of it, per History, the people made pledges to the gods, which they believed would be rewarded if upheld. According to University of Royal Holloway London's "Ancient traditions: Why we make new year resolutions" (via ScienceDaily), the Romans had a similar practice. January 1, for them, was a time to give gifts, exchange hopes and prayers for the year ahead, and honor Janus, the two-faced god who looks forward to the future and back toward the past at the same time. As Professor Richard Alston put it, Roman lawmakers "made a resolution to remain loyal to the republic and swore oaths to the Emperor on 1st January."

History adds that the religious roots of New Years' resolutions also extend to Christianity. The Covenant Renewal Service, created in 1740, was (and still is) held at the turn of the New Year, and is marked by a pledge of renewed commitment. Today's New Year's resolutions, all in all, are a mix of old and new traditions.