Read: New Year’s resolutions are predictions about the future
New Year’s resolutions have a long history in many forms, dating back at least 4,000 years to ancient Babylon, where people celebrated the feast of Akitu and promised to repay debts and return things they’d borrowed in an attempt to please fickle deities. Versions of the practice were also common in ancient Rome and medieval Europe, and the concept was carried into modern cultures by religious traditions like Christian watchnight services and the Jewish High Holidays, which emphasize taking stock of the previous year and making amends to move forward.
As American culture has become more secular, resolutions have been mostly stripped of their religious origins, pivoting instead to focus on the self. That’s been especially true since the self-help and personal fitness booms of the 1960s and ’70s, when self-improvement practices that had previously been confined to the fringe started seeping into mainstream use. Forty-four percent of American adults intend to make resolutions for 2019, according to a poll conducted in December by NPR, PBS Newshour, and Marist.
In the United States, self-improvement often boils down to being thin and amassing wealth. In the same poll, almost a third of those intending to make resolutions singled out eating habits, exercise, or weight as the problems they hope to fix, and another 10 percent chose finance-related goals. Down the list, being kinder, becoming more spiritual, or worrying less received only faint support. Marist’s historical polling data shows that Americans have been making the most popular resolutions in roughly similar numbers for years.
Not coincidentally, these resolutions are also the centerpieces of most resolution-dependent advertising. No data exist on how American commerce influences resolution choice, so on a statistical level, it’s a bit of a chicken/egg issue: Do we choose these resolutions because that’s how resolutions are marketed to us as a concept, or are these ideas central in year-end marketing because the people creating ads have noticed that’s where people are already trending?
At the very least, it’s worth noting that the top resolutions tend to be the ones for which it’s easiest to market products or services. Gym memberships, workout clothes, and meal-delivery plans are easily targeted to someone who feels pressure to change their physical self, but it’s less clear what kind of subscription pairs with the intention to be kinder. I’m sure someone’s working on it.
Read: The chart that explains why your New Year’s resolution will (probably) fail
At this point, American conceptions of what self-improvement might entail are so static that it probably doesn’t matter whether the resolutions or the pressure from brands came first. Many Americans feel constant anxiety about whether they might be too fat or poor, and they can suffer real-world consequences for failing to lose weight or make more money. It’s not hard to imagine why people might choose those options when prompted to explain what they don’t like about themselves, and that they might buy things meant to assuage their fears of being unable to change. So much of modern cultural messaging about those changes comes from brands. The solutions they offer are their products.