The Road to Hell: New Year Resolutions

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“A New Year’s resolution is something that goes in one year and out the other” – attributed to Oscar Wilde.

Despite little or no evidence that they work, plenty of people still wistfully make a to-do list of new determinations at the start of every year.

The tradition of New Year’s Day resolutions apparently dates back to the early Babylonians, who believed that what a person does on the first day of the new year will affect what they do throughout the year.

These days, New Year resolutions are usually a vain attempt to address some deficit, lack of moral fibre perhaps or a general absence of any self-discipline that a person recognises in themselves and hopes that by making a statement of intent, that this will somehow change.

Of course, if you have no spine on the 31st of December, why should you miraculously acquire it on the 1st of January?

40-45% of American adult make one or more resolutions each year, 30% of which are broken within the first week. Reasons are simple: most people just don’t expect to keep a resolution, judged on their past experience, whereas others simply don’t know how to set and keep goals.

The truth is that most people never change in the course of a lifetime. There may be times in the callowness of youth when we believe that human nature is malleable but experience usually disabuses us of such illusions.

On the odd occasion someone may make a real change in their behaviour – perhaps as a result of some life-changing event such as being forced to stare death in the face or finding religion – but this is rare. And it is questionable if this really changes someone’s character. If you were a mean-spirited bastard before your Road to Damascus moment, you will likely return to form before long.

Even when confronted with intimations of mortality, such as a shadow on an x-ray or a bad turn, most smokers, for example, are unable to curtail their habit and will willing hasten their demise rather than quit. Is this because smoking is a sublimated death wish in the first place, or are they simply representative of a general gutlessness in all of us?

For several generations, we have been encouraged to “get to know” the spoilt child within rather than fetter our impulses with socially-imposed constraints. As a result, we now live in a feckless age where self-discipline is honoured more often in the breach than in the observance. That we lack much of it is therefore hardly surprising.

As our children have taught us, if you don’t acquire the habit of self-restraint at an early age, it will not spontaneously manifest itself later on. Equally, after years of sloth, the decision to suddenly do a three-hour workout in the gym is more likely to produce a hernia than miraculously make us fit. We must start slowly and build up our stamina first. The same advice applies to embracing a better, healthier lifestyle. It is perseverance and tenacity over time are what ultimately pays. Unfortunately.

So, does this mean that making new year resolution is a complete waste of time? Not necessarily. But for a resolution to have any chance of success, you need to start by being realistic. Ambitious goals are seldom achieved. So that probably means, for most of us, starting by setting the bar very low.

Mark Twain wrote: “New Year’s Day – now is the accepted time to make your regular annual good resolutions.  Next week you can begin paving hell with them as usual.”

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