The Death (?) of the New Year’s Resolution

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This is not the moment for New Year’s resolutions. Yes, technically, it is literally the time for them. But also it’s 2021, almost 2022 — haven’t we had enough Sisyphusness to last us through the decade?

The problem with most resolutions — like vowing to lose weight or be “more” “productive” — is they’re usually formulated as a task that whispers to us that we’re not good enough as we are, that we need to strive to be better. There’s no pleasurable sense of growth in this journey, only a mandate to fix ourselves. They make us feel shitty without delivering us any useful insight into what we’ve learned, what our strengths are, or what could make our lives feel more meaningful.

Maybe in a normal year that would be fine, and making a dumb resolution to accomplish something shallow would feel like another piece of holiday frippery like sequins, eggnog, or a secret Santa gift. Right now, though — for me, at least — anything that isn’t doing something actively positive for my well-being needs to just leave me alone. And I’m not alone in this. “In the context of both 2020 and 2021, New Year’s resolutions feel silly,” says Taylor Majewski, a journalist and editorial agency founder. “Those ‘I’m going to lose weight this year’ or ‘I’m going to exercise more, I’m going to eat healthy, I’m going to learn to play the piano’ goals seem silly in the sense that you don’t know what life is going throw at you or society is going to throw at you.”

None of this is to deny the natural instinct at this time of the year to assess and think about how things could be different — there’s real appeal in using the calendar change to take stock of our lives and reflect on the potential of the year ahead. I interrogated friends, acquaintances, experts, and strangers about resolutions while researching this article, and while almost everyone was skeptical about the way we engage with them — especially right now, exhausted by the rolling uncertainty of the pandemic and a world that feels like a five-alarm fire in which the emergency personnel are serving gasoline cocktails — every single person told me they still welcome the invitation to formally reflect on their lives. But resolutions, as we know them, don’t do that, and they force us to conform to a calendar rather than spring forth from organic cycles of change.

“The other thing that has become really clear to me in 2021 is that goals can take longer than a year to achieve,” Majewski says. “Often when they’re intrinsic and actual goals that you want to achieve, they build on each other. The things that I actually accomplished this year, like writing more and starting my own business, that’s the result of me probably three years ago telling myself that I wanted to do that and writing it down. We put too much pressure on ourselves in being like, I’m going to achieve this within this year.”

Other than the calendar — and the billions of advertising dollars gyms, apps, and the wellness industry spend reminding us just how much better we could be — why resolve to do fuck all right now? It’s easy to make a laundry list of bad facts about this moment: Omicron, tornadoes, floods, mass shootings, the continued rise and grind of authoritarian governments, the more than 5 million people who have died during the pandemic — and at the core of it all is the feeling of uncertainty we’ve been living under for close to two years now, which defies the kind of before-and-afters that resolutions promise.

Engaging in some sort of ritual to reflect on the past year and shape behavior for the next dates back 4,000 years to the ancient Babylonians, through Caesar’s Rome and several European and American religious traditions. According to Merriam-Webster, the coinage “new year resolutions” first appeared in a 1813 column in a Boston newspaper. “I believe there are multitudes of people, accustomed to receive injunctions of new year resolutions, who will sin all the month of December, with a serious determination of beginning the new year with new resolutions and new behaviour,” the anonymous author wrote in a column titled “The Friday Lecture.”

Then as now, resolutions were seen, at least in part, as preemptive permission to party while also promising to wipe the slate clean with a public declaration of the intent to do better. “We love a transformation — especially linked to failure — in our culture,” says Julie Graves Krishnaswami, head of research instruction at Yale Law School and resolution skeptic. “We love it when celebrities or, you know, people in the world do something really horrible and then they redeem themselves.” So long as we perform the intent to do better, it’s almost as though we already have.

Krishnaswami points out that the way we engage with resolutions denies us the opportunity to understand why we need to change in the first place or why we think we need to change at all. “It’s a distinctly American thing — all of a sudden you turn and you’re different, and then you just have to throw out everything,” she says. “There’s value in the person before the resolution.”

Some of the shallowness of this cycle can be attributed to the types of resolutions we tend to make. “Extrinsic goals would be about appearance, materialism, money, power — things that people aspire to have that they think will make them happy,” says Dr. Richard Ryan, professor at the Institute for Positive Psychology and Education at Australian Catholic University, in a video call. “On the intrinsic side, it’s giving to your community, affiliations, love, relationships, personal growth — things that naturally satisfy basic psychological needs, in our opinion.”

Ryan’s research clearly shows that focusing on intrinsic goals makes us happier than extrinsic ambition. “Even if you’re successful in extrinsic gains, they have a double-edged sword: They cost you as much as they get you in happiness,” he says. “The evidence shows that when people reflectively and mindfully get in touch with their values, they drop the stuff like weight loss; they drop the stuff like ‘make more money or more possessions.’” He noted that resolutions tend to be more reflexive than reflective in nature but that they are our most prominent cultural template for personal change.

Nonetheless, some friends told me they weren’t making resolutions this year simply because the massive restructuring of their lives over the past 24 months has made their usual New Year’s goals actually possible. One said he had been able to really focus on his health and spend quality, non-stressed-out time with his family in a meaningful way. Change did come for him — and not on January 1.

Even our relationship to more typical and often unsuccessful goals — like that classic fatphobic pressure to lose ten pounds that we probably won’t keep off and that definitely won’t change our lives — has shifted over the course of 2020 and 2021. “Most people’s bodies changed in a way that they didn’t like,” says style coach Stasia Savasuk. “By that, I mean they gained weight, the ultimate sin in our culture. Some people lost weight because that’s the way their bodies respond to stress.” And whether or not we’re reevaluating our relationship to wellness culture and body size, the absolute futility of making plans has been more than sufficiently illustrated by Omicron. “It’s not even about us,” she says. “If we’re like, I’m going to go to the gym five days a week, and then your gym shuts down because of COVID, you’re screwed.’”

To recap: Setting goals and making room for reflection can positively shape our lives, but resolutions as we’ve largely practiced them have been far more about poking at our perceived shortcomings than building our lives in a shape that feels actively good. But this is not the time for laundry lists of ways to perfect ourselves or even really a moment of deep ambition. As we survive the final weeks of 2021, it’s time to drink the fancy wine we’ve been saving for the “right” moment, enjoy that cookie plate without calculating the spin class you’ll burn it off at, and sit on the couch and watch something for the third time. It’s time to appreciate everything we already have. “I feel like we all feel this intense pressure to just do better all the time,” Majewski says. “Like, Oh my God, I should really read more books. If you read one book this year, give yourself some credit.”

Here’s looking at you, 2022.

The Death (?) of the New Year’s Resolution