Are New Years Resolutions Powerful or Useless?
“Yesterday, everyone smoked their last cigar, drank their last glass and took their last oath,” he wrote on January 1, 1863. “Today, we are a pious and exemplary community. In thirty days we will have tossed our reform to the winds and we will have reduced our old loopholes considerably faster than ever. We’ll also happily reflect on how we did the same thing last year around this time.
In Schaffner’s opinion, it’s no coincidence that many of us are especially eager to make positive changes after a hedonistic vacation period. “You have let yourself go too much and now is the time to cleanse yourself,” she said. It’s worth noting, she says, that many resolutions focus on abstinence – giving up our bad habits to cleanse our body and soul.
The “principle of purity” cannot fully explain our penchant for New Year’s resolutions. Many of us, after all, can make promises after relatively sober festivities. And many of our goals relate to work or personal activities that have nothing to do with spiritual and physical atonement. So, is there something special about the date itself that makes personal change of any kind appealing?
Some clues come from the way the brain organizes its memories. Psychologists have found that, rather than seeing our lives as a continuum, we tend to create a narrative, divided into separate “chapters” that mark the different stages of our lives. “People tend to think of life as if they are characters in a book,” says Katy Milkman, professor of psychology at the Wharton School at the University of Pennsylvania and author of the book How to Change.
These chapters can characterize major life events, such as entering college, getting married, or having your first child. But your mind can also break these large chapters into smaller sections so that the start of a new year can represent a break in the story. “Whenever you have a moment that feels like a division of time, your mind does a special thing where it creates the feeling that you have a fresh start,” says Milkman. “You turn the page, you have a clean slate, it’s a new beginning.”