There’s a bit of disparity in accounts of the history of New Year’s resolutions, with various cultures being given the credit for developing them. What does seem to hold true is that many cultures have a tradition of using the first day of the year as a day of reflection, with some specifically focusing on atonement, the examination of past mistakes, and resolution to do better in the coming year. And that people have been doing this for a very long time, using the marking of time as a society as an excuse to explore one’s own actions.
I used to do New Year’s resolutions. I think a lot of people have done them at some point or another. What intrigues me about them in the United States is the way in which they are framed. Rather than being based on actions which have hurt others, and a resolution to improve one’s behavior to avoid causing harm to others, or rather than being about actions which you can undertake to help people, they are about self-shaming. The goal is not to examine your actions to think about how you can be a better person and improve society as a whole, it’s to shame yourself. And, by extension, those around you (for being too weak to make/stick to the same resolution).
What are the most common resolutions? Things like “lose weight,” “get fit,” “save more money,” “enjoy life more,” “get organized.” These are all “personal improvement” type goals which actually make a lot of assumptions about what would be “improving” and how best to accomplish that “improvement.” For the person making the resolution, it’s a form of self-castigation, and for friends and family, they can be a form of silent accusation; don’t you want to be like your friend/family member and improve yourself?
Take something like “enjoy life more.” Is it really that easy to resolve to enjoy life more? People in the United States are big fans of “positive thinking,” the idea that if you just think (try) hard enough, everything will magically be better. But what if you have depression? What if your life really is in a bad place; you have no job, you are out of money, things around you are going wrong? Can you just make a resolution and suddenly enjoy things? Are you really obligated to “enjoy life” just because that would make other people feel more comfortable?
Or are you going to make a resolution because you have been guilted by society into thinking that it is bad to not enjoy life, which will then play into further self-shaming as you fail to enjoy life? When you spend all your time being told to lighten up, relax, enjoy the good things in life, there is a temptation to go “yes, ok, I will do that, I will enjoy life now,” but it doesn’t really work that way. Indeed, you often enjoy life less when you are trying oh so very hard to enjoy it.
And then same sorts of things seem to hold true for a lot of New Year’s resolutions. They have to do with the personal fulfillment of social expectations. The idea that you will be a better person if you conform with what society wants. They’re not about what would actually make you happy, nor are they about things you could do which would improve the world. They are about making yourself likeable, about reforming not what you do, but who you are, to meet social demands.
People should not have to change aspects of themselves to please others. Resolving to compromise yourself, to change who you are, with the goal of being more socially acceptable, is no resolution at all. It’s worth examining what one really is resolving. Are you resolving to be more organized because you are genuinely frustrated with your organization? Or because your friends always complain that you are disorganized? Are you resolving to do something fun every month because you want to do that, or because that’s what your friends tell you you should do to be happy?
I think it is worthwhile to reflect on one’s actions now and then, and think about how they could be improved. And to then do that, rather than resolving to do it. Resolve not to resolve; don’t resolve at all. Just do it. And why reserve a specific day of the year, a day which seems to have been coopted for the purpose of social shaming, to examine yourself?
I ask myself not “what do people think about me,” but “what do people think about my actions,” and it changes the context of the question. The question is not how I can be a better person, but how I can build a better world, and perhaps be a better person in the process. And I can do that any day of the week. In fact, I shy away from self-examination at the New Year primarily because so many people bring it back to shame and social acceptability and I don’t want to be caught up in that.
I want to do things. To create things. To make things happen. I don’t want to make a pledge to shame myself. And that’s why I don’t do New Year’s resolutions.