Why Do We Make New Year's Resolutions?

catherine_jones/iStock via Getty Images
catherine_jones/iStock via Getty Images

Every time a new year rolls around, people set out to better themselves. They promise they will 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? Well, we can start by blaming the ancient Babylonians.

Around 4000 years ago in Babylon, the earliest recorded celebration honoring the coming of a new year was held. 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 off 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.

To this day, the traditions of the ancient Babylonians and Romans continue on around the world. So much so that Google launched a Resolution Map in 2012 where people could add resolutions and see others adding theirs in real time. However, no matter how many people participated in Google’s project, the numbers are bleak when it comes to the amount of people who maintain their resolutions; only 9.2 percent of people are successful in sticking them out.

The most popular resolutions:

    • Lose weight/eat healthier
    • Get organized
    • Save more money
    • Quit smoking
    • Enjoy life
    • Spend more quality time with close friends and family members
    • Get—and stay—healthy
    • Learn something new
    • Help others pursue their goals
    • Find love

If those failed resolutions above look familiar and remind you that the whole concept is a bust, or if they inspire you to create your own list of promises for 2020, just remember that this tradition is destined to live on. We have 4000 years worth of history telling us so, and that's a statistic that's hard to argue with.

Have you got a Big Question you'd like us to answer? If so, let us know by emailing us at bigquestions@mentalfloss.com.

In What Field Was Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. a Doctor?

Express Newspapers/Getty Images
Express Newspapers/Getty Images

Martin Luther King Jr. earned a doctorate in systematic theology from Boston University in 1955. He’d previously earned a Bachelor of Arts from Morehouse College and a Bachelor of Divinity from Crozer Theological Seminary. His dissertation, “A Comparison of the Conception of God in the Thinking of Paul Tillich and Henry Nelson Wieman,” examined the two religious philosophers’ views of God in comparison to each other, and to King’s own concept of a "knowable and personal" God.

In 1989, some three decades after King had earned his doctorate, archivists working with The Martin Luther King Papers Project discovered that King’s dissertation suffered from what they called a “problematic use of sources.” King, they learned, had taken a large amount of material verbatim from other scholars and sources and used it in his work without full or proper attribution, and sometimes no attribution at all.

In 1991, a Boston University investigatory committee concluded that King had indeed plagiarized parts of his dissertation, but found that it was “impractical to reach, on the available evidence, any conclusions about Dr. King's reasons for failing to attribute some, but not all, of his sources.” That is, it could have been anything from malicious intent to simple forgetfulness—no one can determine for sure today. They did not recommend a posthumous revocation of his degree, but instead suggested that a letter be attached to the dissertation in the university library noting the passages lacked quotations and citations.

Have you got a Big Question you'd like us to answer? If so, let us know by emailing us at bigquestions@mentalfloss.com.

Who Is 'The Real McCoy'?

Inventor Elijah McCoy is may or may not be "The Real McCoy."
Inventor Elijah McCoy is may or may not be "The Real McCoy."
Ypsilanti Historical Society, CC BY-SA 4.0 via Wikimedia Commons

After taking a cool, carbonated sip of champagne from the Champagne region of France, you might say, “Ah, now that’s the real McCoy.” Sparkling wine from anywhere else is technically just sparkling wine.

The phrase “the real McCoy,” which can be used to describe any genuine version of something, has several possible origin stories. And while none of them mention champagne, a few do involve other types of alcohol.

According to HowStuffWorks, the earliest known recorded instance of the saying was an 1856 reference to whisky in the Scottish National Dictionary—"A drappie [drop] o' the real MacKay”—and by 1870, a pair of whisky distillers by the name of McKay had adopted the slogan “the real McKay” for their products. As the theory goes, the phrase made its long journey across the pond, where it eventually evolved into the Americanized “McCoy.”

Another theory suggests “the real McCoy” originated in the United States during Prohibition. In 1920, Florida-based rum runner Bill McCoy was the first enterprising individual to stock a ship with alcohol in the Caribbean, sail to New York, and idle at least three miles offshore, where he could sell his wares legally in what was then considered international waters. Since McCoy didn’t water down his alcohol with substances like prune juice, wood alcohol, and even turpentine, people believe his customers started calling his top-notch product “the real McCoy.” There’s no definitive proof that this origin story is true, but The Real McCoy rum distillery was founded on the notion.

There are also a couple other leading theories that have nothing to do with alcohol. In 1872, inventor Elijah McCoy patented a self-regulating machine that lubricated parts of a steam engine without the need for manual maintenance, allowing trains to run continuously for much longer distances. According to Snopes, the invention’s success spawned a plethora of poor-quality imitations, which led railroad personnel to refer to McCoy’s machines as “the real McCoy.”

Elijah McCoy’s invention modernized the transportation industry, but he wasn’t the only 19th-century McCoy who packed a punch. The other was welterweight champion Norman Selby, better known as Kid McCoy. In one story, McCoy decked a drunken bar patron to prove that he really was the famous boxer, prompting others to christen him “the real McCoy.” In another, his alleged penchant for throwing fights caused the press to start calling him “the real McCoy” to acknowledge when he was actually trying to win. And yet another simply suggests that the boxer’s popularity birthed so many McCoy-wannabes that Selby started to specify that he was, in fact, the real McCoy.

So which “the real McCoy” origin story is the real McCoy? The 1856 Scottish mention of “the real MacKay” came before Elijah McCoy’s railroad invention, Kid McCoy’s boxing career, and Bill McCoy’s rum-running escapades, but it’s possible that the phrase just gained popularity in different spheres at different times.

Have you got a Big Question you'd like us to answer? If so, let us know by emailing us at bigquestions@mentalfloss.com.

SECTIONS

arrow
LIVE SMARTER