Resolutions without a cause

By Julia Atherley

Every year we resolve to make improvements to our lives. We swear that 2017 will finally be the year we get healthy, lose weight, join the gym, quit smoking, drink less, save money, read more, the list could go on. But research shows that most of us give up our resolutions by 17th January  they do not even last a month, let alone a whole year. So why do we keep making them?

The ancient Babylonians were the first people to make New Year’s resolutions. Every New Year, which for them was in March, when the first crops were planted, they would make promises to the gods in return for good favour. When Julius Caesar established the 1st of January as the start of the New Year, the month of January was named after Janus, the two-faced god who looked both forwards and backwards. Sacrifices would be made to the god for good fortune, and to improve on the failings of the last year. We have been setting targets at the beginning of the year for over four millennia, and we still can’t stick to them.

There are of course some positives to setting resolutions for ourselves. The motivation needed to finally give up smoking or lose weight might finally appear when the New Year begins. We are a generation which is never satisfied with our lives as they are and on one hand this ambition can lead to positive and active changes. Our want for self-improvement stems from recognising our own potential. On the other hand our desire for a fresh start is often based upon false perceptions. We have a tendency to want to believe that 2017 will be infinitely different to 2016 and we will finally kick those bad habits. As much as I would love to close the door on 2016, the New Year will not sweep away the problems which emerged last year. David Bowie, Harper Lee, and Alan Rickman sadly aren’t coming back. Brexit means Brexit, Trump means Trump.

So what’s the point in setting targets? Won’t 2017 just be as bad as last year? In some ways yes, but bad things didn’t happen last year because it was 2016. They just happened. Instead, let’s focus on the good things that happened. Leonardo Dicaprio won an Oscar. There are now no known cases of Ebola in West Africa. I matriculated at Durham University. While many people might find it useful to focus on what went wrong last year and make an effort not to repeat their mistakes, it is much healthier to focus on the positives.

The influx of advertisements for gyms, juice makers, and weight loss supplements at the start of January is almost suffocating. With Theresa May announcing earlier this year that mental health should be a focus for the NHS, it should not be overlooked how much of a negative impact such adverts can have.  Being more active and eating healthier are not negative in themselves but the self-hatred engendered by the failure to meet unrealistic targets is harmful for our mental health. The poisonous effects of extreme dieting, whilst present all year round, are especially potent in the first few weeks of the year.

So is there any point trying to make positive changes in January? If there is one thing that 2016 has taught me, it is that progress is not linear. If you give up on your resolutions in mid-January then you may as well have never set any to begin with. If you recognise that self-improvement is more of a journey, then 2017 could be a really positive year for you. I plan to spend the year recognising the difference between what we can change and what we have no control over because 2016 was not perfect and 2017 won’t be either. But instead of setting ourselves ridiculous, life-changing targets, let’s focus on the good that happened last year and try to build on it in the year to come.

Illustration by Faye Chua.

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