WASHINGTON, January 3, 2015 – U.S. Senator Harry Reid injured himself badly on an exercise machine. Senator Jeff Flake, R-Ariz., tweeted, with some collegial humor as well as sympathy, “Now there’s a man serious about new year’s resolutions! Get well soon, @SenatorReid. See you back in DC.”
We can join Flake in wishing Reid a speedy recovery – and a speedy retirement if we’re feeling partisan – but there are millions of Americans working out this week who we hope are not going to suffer Reid’s fate. The odds are that they’ll stop working out before they can hurt themselves.
People start working out this week because of New Year’s resolutions. They eat healthier foods for a while, until the effort and taste discourage them. (Here’s a helpful eating hint: “Healthy” doesn’t mean unseasoned, and there’s more to healthy food than quinoa and broccoli.) They try to stop smoking, volunteer more, save more, lose weight. They resolve to read more and watch TV less.
With the changing of the year we try to change ourselves.
That effort is usually short-lived. Pollsters say that 45 percent of us make New Year’s resolutions, and that most of us break them before Valentine’s day. By the end of the year, we’ve broken 90 percent of them. Only 75 percent of us make it through the first week.
The older we are, the less likely we are to be successful at achieving our resolutions. We’re creatures of habit, defined by the ruts of mind and activity to which we’re accustomed, and old ruts are the deepest. Forming new habits and breaking old ones is hard. After you’ve spent years becoming who you are, it’s hard to become a new and improved you in just the few short weeks we usually give it.
There are ways to improve the odds that we’ll succeed with our resolutions: have specific goals; make the goals realistic; track your progress. It’s easier to establish and build on small, specific habits than on big and vague desires.
New Year’s resolutions have been around for at least 4,000 years. The ancient Babylonians made resolutions to earn favor from the gods for the coming year. The month January gets its name from the Roman god Janus. He was the two-faced god, one face looking backwards, the other forward. He was the god of change and new beginnings, the god of doorways and possibilities.
Romans gave us the tradition of the New Year’s resolution, in recognition of Janus’s importance and the importance of moral rebirth. Roman resolutions took on a more moral flavor than our own, with less concern with losing weight and making more money, more concern with goodness to others and moral virtue.
Christians made of the new year a time for prayer, but the idea of the resolution kept hold. American theologian Jonathan Edwards created a list of resolutions, though not just on New Year’s Eve, and not just for the year. He compiled his list over two years in the early 18th century, and they had almost nothing to do with losing weight (a resolution chosen by almost 40 percent of Americans today).
Edwards came up with 70 resolutions, and his first was a doozy: “Resolved, that I will do whatsoever I think to be most to God’s glory, and my own good, profit and pleasure, in the whole of my duration, without any consideration of the time, whether now, or never so many myriads of ages hence. Resolved to do whatever I think to be my duty, and most for the good and advantage of mankind in general. Resolved to do this, whatever difficulties I meet with, how many and how great soever.”
Among the others were:
- Resolved, never to lose one moment of time; but improve it the most profitable way I possibly can.
- Resolved, to live with all my might, while I do live.
- Resolved, never to do anything, which I should be afraid to do, if it were the last hour of my life.
- Resolved, never to do anything out of revenge.
- Resolved, never to speak evil of anyone, so that it shall tend to his dishonor, more or less, upon no account except for some real good.
- Resolved, that I will live so as I shall wish I had done when I come to die.
- Resolved, in narrations never to speak anything but the pure and simple verity.
Oh, there was this one, very much in the spirit of modern resolutions:
- Resolved, to maintain the strictest temperance in eating and drinking.
Most of our resolutions are much less grand than Edwards’, and much more oriented on the temporal. We aren’t so much focused today on being better people inside as we are to be new and improved in the Madison Avenue sense: glitzier, more attractive, and more marketable.
New Year’s resolutions should be an opportunity for self-improvement, but realistic and achievable self-improvement. They are there to build us up, not tear us down.
It isn’t too late to make resolutions. It never is. Make them as you go along, always updating them as you change. We are always changing, whether we intend it or not, so the goal should be to take charge of the change, channeling it into habits that you will want to preserve.
Every day is a doorway, not just January 1. If you’ve already blown it, start over. There’s no reason to wait until 2016.