What purpose then do the rituals around New Year serve for us? The partying is obvious – a continuation of the Midwinter Feast, fireworks to frighten off the demons of darkness, a last hurrah to bond the tribe before the hungry months until spring. But what’s the purpose of New Year Resolutions? They can’t be to actually get us fit, or slimmer, or less in debt, or whatever we choose, because so few of them result in lasting change. And to be honest a lot of them aren’t around changes we would necessarily welcome if they became permanent in any event. We give up alcohol for January, or go onto a diet, or do a detox; we vow to go to the gym more often, or to walk 10,000 steps a day, or to spend less on our credit cards, but to me the implication of a lot of these resolutions is that they’ll be temporary, and that once we’ve got detoxed, or slim, or fit, or whatever, we’ll be able to stop trying so hard.
There’s a weird sort of double-think around this, which includes both elements of purification and sacrifice. We’ll give something up (alcohol, burgers, slobbing on the sofa) and in return we’ll be purified, “detoxed”, and (presumably) become the kind of person who goes to the gym regularly, limits themselves to one glass of wine a night and always chooses the healthy option at supper. Which is of course bullshit, but we persist in hoping.
I heard a saying once that we spend our lives in the service of future selves who are never satisfied and I guess our attitude to New Year’s resolutions is something like this. We hope that if we sacrifice and suffer and purify ourselves we’ll somehow become “better”, without asking what being better will achieve. The implication is that being ‘better” in some way will make us happier; the problem is that it very rarely does. Fitter isn’t happier, detoxed isn’t happier, slimmer isn’t happier, even if they’re sold to us that way.