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.