Around the time between Christmas and New Year's Day, people around the world reflect on what events took place over the year, how they have developed individually, and figure out plans for the year ahead. However, the idea of making New Year's resolutions may be a uniquely American tradition.
According to Anna Almendrala of the Huffington Post, the practice of setting new resolutions at the beginning of each year harkens back to the American colonial legacy left by the British along with one of the country's earliest religious traditions, Protestantism. Sociologist Isidor Thorner argued back in 1951 that New Year resolutions in the modern United States functioned as a weakened, secularized version compared to "an earlier religious attitude of life-long emotional discipline."
"Ascetic Protestantism, a denomination of Christianity that emphasizes hard work and the denial of worldly pleasure, has been credited with everything from the success of American Capitalism to America's 'prudish' sexual values," Almendrala wrote. "While they never wanted to appear beholden to earthly indulgence, early adherents believed that material wealth and worldly success were outward signs of spiritual rectitude and God's favor."
Almendrala added that their worldview was reflected on their New Year's customs. According to Thorner, the tradition of making resolutions may have been popularized by the Methodist church in 18th century England with the use of watch night services, which rang in the New Year in a spiritual, contemplative way as opposed to rowdy partying.
"The practice also spread to other denominations," Almendrala wrote. "The resolutions tended to reflect Protestant ideals like emotional and physical restraint in the face of life's indulgences."
Based on his research, Thorner concluded that the tradition of making New Year's resolutions were strongest in English-speaking countries with a Protestant background such as Australia, England, Wales, Scotland, Northern Ireland and South Africa. According to Almendrala, countries without that background, such as those in South America and the former Soviet Union, did not engage in such behavior.
"Despite an obvious psychological similarity, Thorner wasn't able to pinpoint exactly when secularized New Year's Resolutions came into vogue, or whether they originated in England or the United States," Almendrala wrote.
Almendrala then made comparisons between the resolutions Americans made in the 1940s and now. She listed the top resolutions for 1947, as gathered from a Gallup Poll:
1. Improve my disposition, be more understanding, control my temper
2. Improve my character, live a better life
3. Stop smoking, smoke less
4. Save more money
5. Stop drinking, drink less
6. Be more religious, go to church oftener
7. Be more efficient, do a better job
8. Take better care of my health
9. Take greater part in home life
10. Lose (or gain) weight
Based on the University of Scranton's list, here are the top resolutions Americans made in 2014 and will probably make again for 2015, according to Almendrala:
1. Lose weight
2. Getting organized
3. Spend less, save more
4. Enjoy life to the fullest
5. Stay fit and healthy
6. Learn something exciting
7. Quit smoking
8. Help others in their dreams
9. Fall in love
10. Spend more time with family
While both lists are inherently secular in nature and share remarkably similar goals at certain points then and now, "weight loss" seems to be the top objective on many modern American lists. Abigail Saguy, sociology and gender studies professor at University of California, Los Angeles, thought that there were social and financial costs associated with one's body mass in the United States.
"In the U.S. and other wealthy nations, you'll find this inverse relationship between status and weight, so that higher-status people are the ones who can afford personal chefs, personal trainers and gym memberships," Saguy said. "It's now the slim and toned physique that requires an investment of resources and signals status."
Saguy added that the priorities of the Americans, according to the resolution lists, are "sad" and selfish, noting that thinness has been associated with status and privilege.
"Wouldn't it be nice if people had New Year's resolutions like help the needy, give more money to charity, be more involved in social causes, or be a better friend or parent or neighbor?" Saguy asked. "I'd love for those to be the focus at the New Year; instead, it's, 'How can I be thinner and better conformed to social expectations in the hopes of having more privilege?' "
Whatever resolutions are on one's list, Cass R. Sunstein of Bloomberg View argued that people make them in the first place because higher aspirations conflict with daily desires.
"Resolutions are designed to give our aspirations the upper hand," Sunstein said. "In the terms of modern social science, human beings engage in fast, automatic, short-term thinking, and also in slower, more deliberative, long-term thinking. When we make New Year's resolutions, we're taking advantage of a 'temporal landmark' that helps us to strengthen our best intentions."
Sunstein elaborated on why temporal landmarks matter so much.
"They provide a clear opportunity to step back from daily life and reflect -- to ponder whether your actions, and your life, mirror your highest goals for yourself," Sunstein wrote in regards to temporal landmarks. "When you hit a birthday or a new year, you ask about the big picture."
Another factor that plays into the importance of temporal landmarks is the sense of one's identity, according to Sunstein.
"People's behavior often stems from their sense of their own identity, and big changes happen more easily when they can convince themselves that their 2015 self is on a whole new path," Sunstein wrote.
Sunstein found several solutions from "behavioral economists" that can help people stick to their New Year's resolutions for the long haul.
"Make them easy and automatic, make them a matter of habit, and make them fun," Sunstein wrote. "A resolution is more likely to work if it is concrete and can be translated into a simple routine."