“How to Build a Life” is a biweekly column by Arthur Brooks, tackling questions of meaning and happiness.
If you are someone who follows a traditional religion, you most likely have a day such as Yom Kippur, Ashura, or Ash Wednesday, dedicated to atoning for your sins and vowing to make improvements to your life. But if you are not religious, you might still practice a day of devotion and ritualistic vows of self-improvement each year on January 1. New Year’s Day rings in the month of January, dedicated by the ancient Romans to their god Janus. Religious Romans promised the two-faced god that they would be better in the new year than they had been in the past.
According to the Pew Research Center, historically between one-third and one-half of Americans observe this pagan rite every year by making their own New Year’s resolutions. The most common resolutions are fairly predictable: financial resolutions, like saving more money or paying down debt (51 percent in 2019); eating healthier (51 percent); exercising more (50 percent); and losing weight (42 percent).
Old Janus is pretty annoyed at this point, I imagine, because our resolutions overwhelmingly fail. According to academic research on the topic, fewer than half of resolutions are still continuously successful by June. Other surveys find even lower success rates—as low as 6 percent. One way to corroborate these numbers is with market data. For example, gym memberships spike right after New Year’s Day. In one analysis, gym visits start to decline significantly by the third week of January. After eight months, around half of the new members have stopped going entirely.