If you’ve never committed a great sin that you’d prefer to keep secret, then I would ask what have you done with your life? Maybe you made a resolution to go and sin no more. I’ve never made a New Year’s resolution myself (seriously), as I always figured that I could weasel around and break promises without being all formal about it.
Nevertheless, resolutions are common. People resolve to lose weight, try not to argue with their mother about that thing that doesn’t need to be mentioned, stop watching Justin Bieber videos. What is the psychological motivation of a New Year’s resolution? If, for instance, you had sense enough to stop watching Justin Bieber, why not just do it the moment you have that insight of cultural clarity? Why wait for the declaration that you’re really, seriously, no really going to do it?
A New Year’s resolution seems to be one aspect of human belief in the magical power of language. The magical power of a resolution carries such weight, in fact, that it should not be wasted on trivial or frivolous things (such as I resolve to rinse off my plate before I put it in the sink or I resolve to put the toilet seat down).
Other examples of the magical power of language include curses and blessings, which, if we took them more literally, are supposed to have an actual magical effect. As another aspect of the belief in the power of language, I would include prayer (because if God already knows, why do we need to say it?). And of course we have oaths: oaths of office, oaths to tell the truth in court, oaths to join things (the military, clubs).
Even if we only declare a resolution in our head, a silent resolution is more formal than simply a desire or intention that remains unarticulated. It’s easy to see why the beginning of a new year would be a time to evoke this magic. Any event that marks the beginning of something new (a year, a school term, a relationship) becomes connected with the idea of a new beginning in other ways as well.
What I find more interesting is to consider why we have this belief in linguistic magic. This very evening I was looking at the latest copy of National Geographic, reading an article about early art, and the oldest examples of art that are definitely known go back more than 50,000 years. Yes, it’s hard to imagine, but there it is. So we know that more than 50,000 years ago, human beings were using materials of the earth to create symbolic representations of thought.
This is an inherently human activity, to physically express thoughts, to create symbols that represent those thoughts. This can lead in a direction I won’t go right now, of why we are so fixated on the physical world, as though our real existence is this physical state of being.
In any case, within that context, a thing seems more real when it takes on a physical existence. But thoughts, desires, intentions—how can they be made real? At the very least, they are made symbolically real, by putting them into words and either speaking them or writing them down. Thus we declare our serious intentions with New Year’s resolutions.
If I ever do make a New Year’s resolution, it will probably have something to do with drinking a whole lot better wine than I currently drink. But I’d have to pay for it, so that resolution isn’t looking real hopeful. Unless you want to buy me a bottle, in which case I resolve to show you the gratitude of a puppy with a new chew toy.