Why We Make New Year's Resolutions

New Year's Resolutions
What's on your New Year's resolutions list? (Image credit: Shutterstock)

Got plans to lose weight, eat healthier or save more money? If these or any other New Year's resolutions are on your list, you're in good company because you are taking part in a goal-driven tradition that has emerged in different forms throughout history.

This year, 44 percent of respondents in a national survey said they planned to make resolutions for 2018, according to Marxist Poll, a poll run by the Marist College in Poughkeepsie, New York. The most popular resolutions were to "be a better person" (12 percent of respondents) and to lose weight (also 12 percent). Exercising more, eating healthier and getting a better job had a three-way tie with 9 percent each. 

People hoping to slim down or move up the corporate latter may not realize it, but they are engaging in a tradition that has ancient origins. Bronze Age people also practiced the fine art of New Year's resolutions, though their oaths were external, rather than internally focused. More than 4,000 years ago, the ancient Babylonians celebrated the New Year not in January, but in March, when the spring harvest came in. The festival, called Akitu, lasted 12 days. [Top 10 Creation Myths]

An important facet of Akitu was the crowning of a new king, or reaffirmation of loyalty to the old king, should he still sit on the throne. Special rituals also affirmed humanity's covenant with the gods; as far as Babylonians were concerned, their continued worship was what kept creation humming. 

Roman New Year

Centuries later, the ancient Romans had similar traditions to ring in their new year, which also originally began in March. In the early days of Rome, the city magistrates' terms were defined by this New Year's date. On March 1, the old magistrates would affirm before the Roman Senate that they had performed their duties in accordance with the laws. Then, the New Year's magistrates would be sworn into office.

After Rome became an empire in 27 B.C., New Year's Day became a time for city leaders and soldiers to swear an oath of loyalty to the Emperor. This was not always mere political theater: In A.D. 69, after Emperor Nero died, civil war broke out over Rome's next leader. The Roman legions in Germany refused to swear allegiance to the next candidate for Emperor, Servius Sulpicius Galba, said Richard Alston, a professor of Roman history at Royal Holloway University of London. Galba's bodyguards in Rome soon turned against him as well, and killed him in the Forum, Rome's civic plaza. [In Photos: The Gladiators of Ancient Roman Empire]

Like Babylon, Rome originally celebrated the New Year in March, Alston told Live Science, but at some point around 300 B.C., the ceremony shifted to Jan. 1. Rome was a military society, he said, and as the empire expanded, the generals had to travel longer distances. Prime battle season was in the spring, which probably made a March 1 swear-in date too late.

"They wanted to have the generals in place for the campaigning season," Alston said.

As Romans gradually became less warlike, the switch from celebrating the New Year during a month (March) associated with Mars, the god of war to one (January), associated with Janus, a god of home and hearth, seemed appropriate, he added. The first half of New Year's Day in Rome would have been taken up by public ceremonies, oath-taking and temple sacrifices, he said, while the second half of the day was for social activities. Citizens would bring each other gifts of honey, pears and other sweets as presents for a "sweet new year," Alston said. 

Modern traditions

There is no direct line from ancient Roman tradition to modern New Year's resolutions, but the desire to start anew pops up repeatedly in western civilization. In 1740, John Wesley, the founder of Methodism, invented a new type of church service. These services, called Covenant Renewal Services or watch night services, were held during the Christmas and New Year's season as an alternative to holiday partying. Today, these services are often held on New Year's Eve, according to the United Methodist Church. Worshippers sing, pray, reflect on the year and renew their covenant with God.

New Year's resolutions have become a secular tradition, and most Americans who make them now focus on self-improvement. The U.S. government even maintains a website of those looking for tips on achieving some of the most popular resolutions: losing weight, volunteering more, stopping smoking, eating better, getting out of debt and saving money.

"If the past is any indication, many Americans have a good chance at keeping their promises for at least part of 2018," Lee Miringoff, director of The Marist College Institute for Public Opinion, said in a statement.

Editor's Note: This article was originally published Dec. 31, 2013. It was updated on Dec. 31, 2017 to add new survey data on American attitudes towards New Year's resolutions.

Original article on LiveScience.

Stephanie Pappas
Live Science Contributor

Stephanie Pappas is a contributing writer for Live Science, covering topics ranging from geoscience to archaeology to the human brain and behavior. She was previously a senior writer for Live Science but is now a freelancer based in Denver, Colorado, and regularly contributes to Scientific American and The Monitor, the monthly magazine of the American Psychological Association. Stephanie received a bachelor's degree in psychology from the University of South Carolina and a graduate certificate in science communication from the University of California, Santa Cruz.