"New Year, New Me" and Other Lies We Tell Ourselves

At first glance, the title of this piece may come across as cynical. But I promise that I am not writing this to justify my failed New Year’s resolutions and attack the concept as a whole. Instead, I am intrigued by the unlikely power of a New Year’s resolution — how can something like the Earth making a revolution around the sun prompt something as unrelated as individual life improvement? How have we convinced ourselves that a fresh calendar automatically grants us a fresh start?

I am trying to be careful to avoid a tangential rant about the illusion of time and how the clocks that dictate our lives may just be a mental construct. But is it not curious that we have attached ourselves so closely to time that a change of the date could be the difference, for instance, between someone indulging a smoking habit or deciding to quit? It isn’t a mystery as to why people are reluctant to give up the bursts of dopamine gained from guilty pleasures. New Year’s resolutions are more formal than other goals — they feel heavier. So, why does a change in the year trigger a collective societal pressure to be better individuals than we were the day before?

Maybe it’s the metaphorical significance of the new year. It is difficult to ignore the poetry of a new beginning. There is an obvious symbolic link between resetting the calendar and resetting our habits. However, the figurative meaning of a new year as a time to be “reborn” does not fully explain the all-consuming culture that has developed around New Year’s resolutions. As Amos Tversky, a psychologist and one of the pioneers of decision-making theory, once said, “[Metaphors] replace genuine uncertainty about the world with semantic ambiguity. A metaphor is a cover-up.”

Of course, the metaphor of a new year may be why it is associated with a time of personal renaissance or — less pretentiously — a time when we set out to get it together. However, it still doesn’t fully clarify why these associations lead to action. This is what Tversky must have meant: just because the new year makes for a good symbol does not mean it suffices as explanation — especially when the metaphor of the new year does not fully match up to the reality.

Indeed, the metaphor itself is flawed. The symbol of the new year as a reset button does not hold up because the new year represents a progression in time. This may seem like a simple technicality, but it leads to our mistaken interpretation of the new year. Rather than viewing it as an opportunity to build on the progress we have already made in life, we instead tend to see it as a blank slate. In actuality, our pasts follow us, which is a good thing. After all, we improve by learning from the peaks and valleys we’ve endured. Our “tabula rasa” — blank slate — approach to the new year undermines this reality and replaces it with unfeasible perfectionism.

Failing to recognize history leads us to repeat it. In fact, the U.S. News & World Report tells us that about 80 percent of New Year’s resolutions fail by February. Still, the metaphor tells another story. The figurative new year — the one that implies a new beginning — suggests that somehow between Dec. 31 and Jan. 1, you become a new person, the one who wakes up at 6 a.m. to go to the gym and never falls into the black hole of online shopping. Of course, the reality is the polar opposite. On Jan. 1, you are still the same person you were the night before. Despite the reality of resolutions, it remains a viral annual trend. People still buy into the false hope that “this year will be different.” Why? Surely it is not just because of our infatuation with a metaphor. No, there must be some sort of psychological trickery at play.

Corporations start capitalizing on tradition because they know the repetition means reliable sources of revenue year after year. The psychological wizardry of corporate marketing then ingrains the “New Year, New Me” mentality into all of us, because it spikes profits every January. Advertisements for a product you would have never considered buying now seem appealing because they claim to help us reach our New Year’s goals. I know this sounds like I’m advocating some big corporate conspiracy, but it is just an example of a larger theme. Companies are able to monetize the human tendency to idealize our future selves.

A 2017 article in The Atlantic by Julie Beck, titled “Imagining the Future is Just Another Form of Memory,” explains this psychological tendency. The piece describes how scientists linked the cognition involved in memory to that of imagination. The commonalities between these two mental processes illuminate why sometimes it is easy to conflate aspiration with ambition — the former being an abstract dream while the latter is a concrete goal. If both memory and imagination involve similar neural pathways, then simply envisioning a good future might offer some of the joy of actually having lived it. For example, maybe someone wakes up on Jan. 1 ready to start losing weight. He has imagined the moment when he is 20 pounds lighter, and the thought brings him joy. He buys the right workout clothes and a gym membership. The excitement of the possible reality motivates him to begin the first few steps of the journey. For a couple weeks, he is eating better and exercising more regularly, but then the vision fades along with his motivation and the reality of the process hits. He has confused aspirational thinking with ambitious thinking — and as a result, he is left more frustrated than he began.

This is not to say that all resolution-makers are unrealistic — 20 percent of resolution-makers do succeed. Instead, it is to acknowledge this glitch in our thinking. If we set resolutions aspirationally, we must not expect the results of true ambition. Even though the resolution may fail, we can still appreciate the joy of dreaming of a better future — that itself does have psychological value.

So in a way, a New Year’s resolution is an unconscious lie — we think we are setting feasible goals when we are really just fantasizing about a different reality. But sometimes it’s fun to imagine ourselves as superhumans who never press snooze on the alarm clock and always skip dessert. Still, at the end of the day, sleeping in and having a congo bar might just be what we really want. And that’s okay. After all, there’s always next year.