Love it or loathe it, we face the same pressures each year: to organise something special, wear our best clothes and - like Prince once told us we should – party like its 1999. But surely it’s just a day in the calendar, an arbitrary date which happens every year. So why do we get so fired up about it?
Different celebrations, common themes
December 31st signals the end of the old, the start of something new and gives us pause to reflect what we’ve done right and wrong in the past year. It’s a time for celebrating the changes and challenges we have overcome. It is also a celebration of survival. We as humans are hardwired to constantly navigate our way through life’s choppy waters and on New Year’s Eve there’s nothing better than toasting the fact that we have successfully lived to the end of another year.
New Year is so significant to so many it commands a vast array of traditions and celebrations across the globe. But common themes run through all of these cultural variations:
- Traditions for chasing away bad luck (usually involving loud noises or fireworks): Village men in Scotland are walking around swinging giant blazing fireballs over their heads and residents of Denmark throw old plates and glasses against the doors of family and friends to banish bad spirits.
- Traditions to bring good luck: In Spain for example, as the clock strikes midnight, people eat 12 grapes which are meant to represent the 12 months of the year.
- Acts of renewal and starting over: Such as in Siberia where trees are planted underneath frozen lakes and rivers and in Johannesburg, South Africa where people throw furniture out the window to signify a fresh start.
- Predicting the year ahead: This is also a favourite, with the Germans among many cultures who drip molten lead into water and predict major events during the coming year based on the shape of the lead drops. A holiday which commands this much attention and variation across the globe must be tied to something profoundly meaningful and important in the human psyche.
Resolving to do better
New Year is a time for reflection and thinking of change, so it’s unsurprising that making New Year’s resolutions remains as popular as ever. Whether we want to work and smoke less, spend more time with the family, get our grades up or save more money, there is nothing like New Year to focus our minds on how we can better ourselves.
Resolutions are also examples of the universal human desire to have some control over what lies ahead. The future is unsettlingly unknowable so we don’t know what we need to know to keep ourselves safe. To counter that worrisome powerlessness, we do things to take control.
How to make and keep a New Year resolution
Alas, New Year’s resolutions are notoriously unsuccessful. A 2007 study by British psychologist Richard Wiseman found that of 3,000 people followed for a year, 88% failed to achieve the goals of their resolutions, although 52% had been confident they would when they made them.
Ensure your best shot at success with a goal that’s doable — and meaningful too. Previous resolutions may have failed because they were created based on what someone else (or society) was telling you to change, perhaps they were too vague or you didn‘t have a realistic plan for achieving your resolution.
Charles Duhigg, author of “The Power of Habit”, suggests that when trying to break a habit, it is good to break that habit down into its three parts – a cue, a routine and a reward. For example: Bad habit: spending too much money; cue: beginning of the month; routine: ordering too much online after work; reward: getting lots of new things. If you can work out your cues, you can seek to change your behaviour and find alternative ways to get the rewards your habit would normally provide.
Success doesn’t happen overnight
Try to be positive, but realistic. Set a plan, but be flexible if life gets in the way. You don’t need to do it alone: the benefit of making a resolution at New Year is that you’ll have plenty of company when you are trying to make life changes.
The first time you revert to your old ways, forget it. “If you screw up, what you should do the first time is just pretend it didn’t happen. Don’t engage in that negative mindset,” Mr. Duhigg said. “Just wake up the next day and pretend you didn’t slip and go back to whatever the pattern was you were trying to encourage.”
Finally, the most important thing? To be kind to yourself. Our inner voice can be a very harsh critic sometimes and often it pays to imagine you are encouraging a child when admonishing yourself. So the first 20 attempts to make a change were unsuccessful. There’s always the 21st, or indeed next New Year’s Eve…