It was either 2004 or 2005 when I got Death Cab for Cutie’s album Transatlanticism for Christmas. That would have made me 14 or 15. I was a fan of The O.C., on which my favorite character liked Death Cab and had a Transatlanticism poster on his bedroom wall. And I was a fan of my friends, who also liked Death Cab, and was eager to adopt their preferred cultural artifacts as my own.
I spent much of that Christmas sitting on the nubbly couch at my Grandma’s house, wearing headphones, listening to that album over and over. Midway through the first song, “The New Year,” Ben Gibbard sings: “So this is the New Year / And I have no resolutions / No self-assigned penance / For problems with easy solutions.”
At the time, so close to the day of penance assignment, I thought that was deep as hell. It strikes me now how wrong it was.
According to Nielsen, the three most common New Year’s resolutions for 2015 were: “Stay fit and healthy,” “Lose weight,” and “Enjoy life to the fullest.” These are not problems with easy solutions! Losing weight, the classic common New Year’s resolution, is a notoriously difficult thing to do. Many more factors go into losing weight, and keeping it off, than just eating less and exercising more, and we probably haven’t even identified them all yet.
But even if some resolutions are too unspecific to be actionable, I find it hard to fault people for stating a desire to “stay fit and healthy.” Or to “spend more time with family and friends,” or to “travel more” or “read more.” All these were also on Nielsen’s list. Calling resolutions “self-assigned penance” equates an earnest desire to better oneself with punishment for not doing it sooner. That’s unfair.
These good intentions can still lead to frustration, though. Part of the problem with resolutions is their often-vague phrasing—“Enjoy life to the fullest” seems particularly doomed to fail. Couldn’t life always be fuller? Setting broad goals allows you to criticize yourself twice—once when you determine the thing that’s wrong, and then again when you fail to fix it. And statistics show that people aren’t great at following through on their good intentions. By one measure, just 8 percent of people achieve what they set out to do in their resolutions.
Still, I understand the impulse to make them. I know that the New Year doesn’t hold any magic to make me better, no more so than any other day does. But look—I usually go to bed by midnight. And when I’m up at 3 a.m. on January 1, warm from champagne and the cranked heater in my best friend’s car as she drives us carefully home down snow-covered streets, when I’m just tipsy enough that every song on the radio seems perfect, when my forehead rests against the cool window and I watch snowflakes flutter in the lamplight, I see the appeal of renewal. Being from the Midwest, I guess snow is my preferred metaphor, but you can also see the promise of change in 12 blank calendar pages, or in the two seconds when the ball drops on the TV and everyone around you clinks glasses, a toast to a switch we’ve all decided to flip together.
This is what’s known as the “fresh-start effect.” Researchers from the University of Pennsylvania have found that after “salient temporal landmarks, like the New Year, a birthday, or even the start of a new week, people were more committed to pursuing their goals. Life offers very few true fresh starts—I guess if you want to be extremely literal about it, birth is the only one you get. Most of life is a continuation. Short of moving to a new place or starting a new job, it’s pretty hard to find a new beginning. So we slice up time and create our own.
But a fresh start is only fresh while you’re anticipating it. Once the New Year begins, it’s no longer special. The party is the night before. We celebrate the transition, then go to bed. January 1 is not a day of celebration—it’s mostly a bank holiday. Once you put a footprint in new-fallen snow, you can’t have the unspoiled landscape back.
I’ve been thinking a lot about the dual nature of the word resolution—it’s both a pledge to do (or not do) something and the moment when a problem is solved. The word simultaneously suggests a beginning (setting a goal) and an end (achieving that goal), but it doesn’t say much about the middle. If your goal is to complete a discrete task, then your resolution can have a resolution. “Get a credit card” is one such resolution I’ve been mulling for 2016, one with a clear start and finish.
“Read more,” on the other hand, is a never-ending goal. It’s pretty much all middle. Nebulous resolutions such as this one are easy to fail at, and almost impossible to meet—there’s not really a way to just check them off and move on. There is a good amount of research on what gets people to follow through on their goals, and one of the important things is making a firm, specific plan.
But I think that trying to live by this advice still leaves something to be desired. I once read about a study that found telling people about your plans to do something made you less likely to do it, because you got positive affirmation for your intentions, rather than for the results. Since then, I’ve tried to keep my most important resolutions secret, working on them in ascetic solitude, and scolding myself when I crack and seek advice or support from another person. As though an accomplishment would feel more satisfying, more deserved, if the work that went into it stayed invisible. Like it would be better if no one knew anything of me but success.
There are two major criticisms of New Year’s resolutions as a cultural practice. One is that it’s a bummer to deliberately search out inadequacies in yourself. I agree there. The other is that they usually don’t work. I don’t think this one matters as much. There is value in identifying what we want from our lives and trying to get it, even if the effort fails.
Resolutions can also be renewed, abandoned, or adjusted at any time. My colleague Megan Garber suggested “autumn resolutions” last year, calling fall a “time of renewal.” The fresh-start research says you get a similar time of renewal every Monday, a chance to take stock and state your desires. And however arbitrary the New Year may be, it offers a mountain peak on which to stand and survey the 365-day expanse behind, and the one ahead.
If you take the verb form of resolution, take the thing and make it active, you get resolve. But resolve is a noun too—determination, willpower. The solution to the sometimes-suboptimal nature of resolutions is not Death Cab’s blasé opting out, but instead taking the opportunity to steel your resolve, whether toward something specific or not.
So with that aim, I’ve recently taken to another New Year’s anthem, the Mountain Goats’s “This Year”: “I am gonna make it through this year if it kills me.” It’s the only resolution I really need.