It’s traditional at this time of year to look ahead and make pledges for the future: to vow to change one’s life, or have a physical or emotional overhaul. This is nothing new— human beings have made resolutions for centuries. At the start of every year, the ancient Babylonians promised their gods that they would return borrowed objects and pay their debts. And the Romans began the new year by making promises to the god Janus, hence the month of January.
Few of us make promises to the deities these days (unless you count the gods of diet and fitness). Modern-day resolutions have changed, becoming more self-centred and arguably more superficial. At the end of the 19th century, a typical teenage girl's New Year's resolution was focused on good works: to become more helpful to others, a more diligent worker, and to improve her internal character. At the start of the 21st century, the typical woman’s resolution is focused on her own appearance: to drop a dress size, tone up, get slim and healthy.
Losing weight, of course, remains the number one resolution. It’s estimated that on January 1st 2012, 2.6 million people started diets. Five days later, 92 percent had given in to comfort eating. This is understandable—really, what could be worse in the bleak midwinter than to deprive oneself of comforting food, or to embark on a punishing exercise regime?
So is there any point to these New Year pledges? Looking back at your resolutions of previous years, how many of them have you kept?
Asking around, I’ve been surprised at the growing anti-New-Year's-resolution movement. The tide seems to be turning for these pointless vows, with more of us deciding to make the changes in our own time, as we need to. For me, after years of resolving to give up smoking for the new year, it took a personal milestone—my 30th birthday—to kick the habit. It wasn’t easy, but I haven’t touched a cigarette since.
Anyway there’s something soul-destroying about giving up: saying no to things often takes less bravery than saying YES. When we embrace the unexpected and ditch the rigid rules, we’re more open to possibility. Giving up giving up can be a positive, life-affirming step. This alternative resolution (from the author Neil Gaiman) filled me with hope:
“I hope that in this year to come, you make mistakes. Because if you are making mistakes, then you are making new things, trying new things, learning, living, pushing yourself, changing yourself, changing your world. You're doing things you've never done before, and more importantly, you're Doing Something.”
But it seems our New Year optimism isn’t entirely dead. Here are some of the resolutions you’ve sent me:
- Give up Botox injections. I can’t afford it, and it’s doing strange things to my face
- Pass my driving test (I’ve failed four times)
- Quit taking selfies. I can barely get dressed these days without posing for another stupid pic
- Smile more, gossip less, and wear more yellow
- Stop making such appalling choices when it comes to men. I would be so much happier alone, if I only I had the confidence
- Run the New York City marathon
- Say 'yes' to everything (within reason)
- To honour nature, care for those less fortunate, most of all to SURVIVE 2014
- Start taking my own lunch into work, thereby saving cash and getting healthy
- Stop wearing so much grey
- Finish reading Ulysses. Ok, start reading Ulysses
- Move to California
- Tell my family I love them every day
- Simply: no resolutions, no rules. Just content, peaceful and full living
- Give up my afternoon chocolate fix. Maybe go for a walk when the craving hits?
- Finish my qualifications as a personal trainer and start my own business
- Do one thing every month that makes me happy, a weekend away, a concert, a favourite restaurant
- Be more honest with myself and my friends (and eat more greens)
- Lose 30 pounds, to get my BMI into the healthy range
- Sort out my allotment - plant carrots, lettuce, potatoes and live off the land!
- Have one digital-free day per week, completely offline: no texting, tablet or Twitter
- There was a time when my resolutions were all body-related—be thinner, more toned, less greedy. Now it’s just to live & be happy
- Have more sex. I’m a man in his prime (mid-40s) good sense of humour, own teeth & hair
Of course there are the light-hearted ones, and many relating to indulgent food, weight loss and fabulous new bikini bodies. But resolutions can also reveal profound sadness.
A woman emails to say she’s giving up IVF. "I have to face facts. It’s not working, and we can’t go through this again. We won’t give up hoping and trying, but no more hormone injections, no more blood tests, doctor’s appointments and crippling medical bills, tension, tears and failures. If we’re meant to have a baby, maybe it will happen. I don’t know. But no more putting life on hold for when I get pregnant; this year I’m going to try, somehow, to fill in this massive baby-shaped hole."
Then a friend who has terminal cancer emails. Her resolution is simple: "not to die this year." A moving reminder to all of us to live as well as we can in 2014; to make each day count.
For previous installments in The View From London, click here.