Why We're Still Conditioned to Uphold New Year's Resolutions

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After counting down on New Year's Eve, many of us rush to sign up for new gym memberships, buy fitness equipment, and stock up on fresh fruits and veggies. It’s the perfect time to start eating mindfully and becoming more active. A new year means a new beginning, right?

But as the weeks roll by, the veggies wilt in our fridges, and the treadmill accumulates fewer and fewer miles. A week later, we replace those rotten apples with ice cream and post that fancy spin bike on Craigslist. Maybe next year?

Why do we do this to ourselves? We amp ourselves up to start the year with hopes and good intentions but after a couple of months, we’re back to our old habits and behaviors, sitting on the couch eating chips and feeling defeated. 

Why Do People Still Want to Keep the Tradition Alive? 

There are many factors that contribute to our need to keep the resolutions going despite being fully aware that the odds are against us. Many of us are conditioned to associate a new year with a “new beginning” and the tradition of making resolutions is maintained by our need for social connection, media influences, company marketing, and most importantly, ourselves.

A New Year Means a Fresh Start

The start of a new year gives people hope for the future and the perception that they are now working with a blank slate. 

Dr. Tong (Toni) Liu MD, physician, cartoonist at Dr. Tooni, and coach expands, “I think we still make resolutions because of hope, optimism, and excitement for a fresh start in the new year, new opportunities, the natural human desire to want our lives to be better, and societal pressure as well…it’s easy to get caught up in this wave of emotions until the new year settles in and loses its luster, which is usually around mid-February.”

It’s a time of the year that reminds us to self-reflect. As Dr. Stephanie J. Wong, PhD, licensed clinical psychologist and host of the Color of Success Podcast puts it, “On an individual level, a person may use this point in time/calendar to reflect on the previous year and establish New Year’s resolutions based on this reflection."

We Don’t Want to Work On Ourselves Alone

New Year's resolutions are embedded in our culture and tied to self-improvement. Although most of us know it’s a good thing to eat more nutritious foods or be more active, we don’t want to start working on ourselves by ourselves. It’s better to do it with other people.

Angela Pei Wu, a licensed marriage and family therapist and life empowerment coach of The Sassy Asian Therapist shares with us, “We are social beings and it brings us comfort when we know that we are not alone. When there are others who are also giving themselves permission to start from a blank slate, it helps us give permission to ourselves to start over. When we know that others are also working towards their personal goals, it motivates us to do the same.”

Our Beliefs Are Tied to Social Norms

There are social pressures to fit in with what everyone is doing. If you see your peers setting resolutions, you are more likely to establish your own.

As Dr. Liu puts it, “Humans are a tribal species, and we are wired for connection and belonging with others, so it’s extremely painful to be an outcast or not part of the group, which is why so many follow societal 'norms' even if it’s not something we truly fully agree with."

"Many of us also live on autopilot and have never taken the time to question our beliefs, behaviors, or patterns," Liu continues. "We just assume they’re the 'right' way to live because everyone else we know is doing them. We inherit a lot of these beliefs and patterns from our families, friends, colleagues, the media, and even strangers.”

Pressure From the Media and Company Marketing

There are also pressures from the media that continue to promote the message that the best time to make resolutions is at the start of the new year. Health and fitness companies take advantage of this time to advertise their latest products, services, diets, and workout plans. 

When there are others who are also giving themselves permission to start from a blank slate, it helps us give permission to ourselves to start over.


It’s easy to internalize these messages whether we directly see their ads on our phones or indirectly hear about a friend’s new gym membership. 

Wu explains, “The tradition can be reinforced by the media and companies because they capitalize on people wanting to try new things — with new goals, people may need new gear, clothes, programs, resources.”

They Do Sometimes Work

Although the majority of people do not succeed in keeping their resolutions, there are a few that do. And those success stories can act as a motivator for someone to keep setting them.

Dr. Liu explains, “We also make them because sometimes they work! Though in the minority, some people successfully keep their resolutions and change their lives for the better, and slim statistics don’t deter people. Also, even if people quit, sometimes they appreciate the days they did succeed, the progress they made, the time they spent dedicated to their goals, what they learned, and who they became in the process.”

Where Did New Year’s Resolutions Come From, Anyway?

New Year’s Resolutions are a tradition as old as time. To be precise, they’re about 4,000 years old. The ancient Babylonians were the first people to make them. 

Every year in mid-March as the Babylonians prepared new crops, they would celebrate Akitu, a 12-day religious festival to honor their new king or current ruler. During this time, the Babylonians would pray to their gods and make promises to pay back their debts and return items that were borrowed. They believed that if they kept their word, the gods will reward them for good behavior. If they didn’t follow through with them, they will be punished. These beliefs are said to be the earliest practice of New Year’s Resolutions.

In 46 BC, Julius Caesar declared January 1st to be the start of the new year. January is named after Janus, a two-faced god that reflected back on the year before and looked forward to the next year. The Romans made promises to Janus of good behavior and offered sacrifices.

In modern times, New Year’s resolutions have become a secular practice where promises aren’t made to gods but rather to ourselves as self-improvement. The types of resolutions have evolved and reflect the current issues society faces. 

Humans are a tribal species, and we are wired for connection and belonging with others, so it’s extremely painful to be an outcast or not part of the group, which is why so many follow societal 'norms' even if it’s not something we truly fully agree with.


A large-scale experiment that analyzed the types of resolutions people make and showed that the most popular resolutions were related to physical health, weight loss, and eating habits.

Why New Year's Resolutions Don't Usually Work

A longitudinal study that looked at New Year’s change attempts showed that 23% gave up on their resolutions after just one week and only 19% were able to maintain their goals for at least two years. Why is it so hard for most people to keep their resolutions?

Lack of Proper Planning

One of the reasons why most people fail to keep their resolutions may be related to our lack of planning and unreasonable expectations. 

Dr. Liu shares with us, “Many people make them with excitement and hope for the new year without having thoroughly considered or planned for the hard work and uncomfortable, boring, or challenging parts of changing their habits. Many also don’t have a good understanding or knowledge of what makes a resolution a 'good,' reasonable, and doable one vs. one that is riskier and easier to 'fail' at.”

It’s easy to make resolutions but getting specific about them may be more challenging.

Dr. Wong explains, “New Year’s resolutions, like most long-term goals, require specificity, and ways to measure, assess, and amend goals, as needed. Therefore, establishing a New Year’s resolution is the initial step in working towards goals, but in order for them to be achieved, an individual must have a plan and timeline to execute steps towards the goals and maintain accountability.”

Our Brains Make It Very Hard For Us To Change

Human brains are wired to resist change. Our minds find patterns and streamline all the sensory input around us before we are even aware of it. Once it finds a pathway that works, it doesn’t deviate from it to prevent expending more energy than required. Our reticular activating system (RAS) is a group of nerves located in the brainstem. It acts as the gatekeeper between the information in our sensory system and the conscious mind.

Dr. Liu elaborates on the RAS, “It is what has helped our survival in the past. It’s usually harder to change a habit the longer you’ve done it and the stronger or more neural pathways you have regarding that particular behavior.”

Humans Prefer Instant Gratification Over Long-Term Benefits

If you ask a toddler whether they would like to have two cookies in an hour or one cookie now, what do they choose? They will choose the latter every time.

Dr. Liu shared with us, “It’s especially hard when it’s a habit that brings short-term pleasure, comfort or gain, at the expense of long-term benefit. Many resolutions are aimed at long-term benefits but short-term discomfort, which requires delaying gratification. When we are exhausted by everyday stressors, and our physical, mental, and/or emotional energy is low, we may be tempted to take the 'easier' route, such as staying home instead of going to the gym or reaching for comfort food instead of sticking to a new diet.”

A Word From Verywell

It’s easy for us to become discouraged when we can’t see the immediate benefits of our efforts. Whether you choose to continue partaking in New Year's Resolutions or not, remember that embracing our temporary grievances for long-term gain may be critical for success.

4 Sources
Verywell Mind uses only high-quality sources, including peer-reviewed studies, to support the facts within our articles. Read our editorial process to learn more about how we fact-check and keep our content accurate, reliable, and trustworthy.
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  2. Oscarsson M, Carlbring P, Andersson G, Rozental A. A large-scale experiment on New Year’s resolutions: Approach-oriented goals are more successful than avoidance-oriented goals. PLoS One. 2020;15(12):e0234097.

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By Katharine Chan, MSc, BSc, PMP
Katharine is the author of three books (How To Deal With Asian Parents, A Brutally Honest Dating Guide and A Straight Up Guide to a Happy and Healthy Marriage) and the creator of 60 Feelings To Feel: A Journal To Identify Your Emotions. She has over 15 years of experience working in British Columbia's healthcare system.