Why Do We Make New Year’s Resolutions?

The tradition goes all the way back to ancient times.
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Every time a new year rolls around, people set out to better themselves. They promise they’ll lose weight, find a new job, or maybe even take that vacation they’ve always talked about. But why do we make these promises to ourselves, and where did this tradition come from? And why does this tradition live on when so many people fail to keep the resolutions they make? We can start by blaming the ancient Babylonians.

The Ancient Origins of New Year’s Resolutions

We can trace the earliest recorded celebration honoring the coming of a new year to 4000 years ago in Babylon. Calendars weren’t as they are today, so the Babylonians kicked things off in late March during the first new moon after the Spring Equinox. The collective ceremonial events were known as the Akitu festival, which lasted 11 days. The festivities were dedicated to the rebirth of the sun god Marduk, but the Babylonians made promises in order to get on the right side of all of their gods. They felt this would help them start the new year on the right foot.

Resolutions continued on with the Romans. When the early Roman calendar no longer synced up with the sun, Julius Caesar decided to make a change. He consulted with the best astronomers and mathematicians of the time and introduced the Julian calendar, which more closely represents the modern calendar we use today. Caesar declared January 1 the first day of the year to honor the god of new beginnings, Janus. The Romans celebrated the New Year by offering sacrifices to Janus.

How Many People Make Resolutions—And How Many Stick With Them

The resolutions established by the ancient Babylonians and Romans continue today. “The New Year serves as a cyclical marker of time during which we reevaluate and take inventory on our lives,” clinical psychologist Sabrina Romanoff told WebMD. “The drive for making resolutions is motivated by this punctuation in time. [It] activates hope and expectations for what we hope to achieve going forward.”

According to a survey of 1000 people conducted by Forbes, 62 percent of respondents felt pressure to make resolutions—but not that many stuck it out. In 2022,TIME magazine reported that a mere 8 percent of people continue with their resolutions for the whole year, with as high as 80 percent of people who make resolutions throwing in the towel by February. “We often set lofty goals for the future without honestly assessing why we’ve struggled in the past,” trauma specialist Britt Frank told WebMD. “Without examining where we are resistant to change ... the cycle of resolve, relapse, repeat continues year after year.”

The Most Popular New Year’s Resolutions

According to data from Statista’s Consumer Insights Survey, the most popular resolutions among people in the U.S. who made them were:

  • Save more money
  • Exercise more
  • Eat healthier
  • Spend more time with family/friends
  • Lose weight
  • Reduce spending on living expenses
  • Spend less time on social media
  • Reduce stress on the job

Compare that to Germany, where Statista’s survey showed that respondents most hope to avoid stress in the New Year, followed by spending more time with friends and family, exercising more, eating healthier, and taking more me-time.

If those resolutions look familiar, inspire you to make your own list, or remind you of failed resolutions past, check out these tips to help you stick to them—and remember that this tradition is destined to live on. We have 4000 years of history telling us so, and that’s a statistic that’s hard to argue with.

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A version of this story ran in 2018; it has been updated for 2023.