With new year's resolution time upon us, it is time once again to start making resolutions - but why?
Christmas is over, New Year's Eve revelry is around the corner, and - eating the cold leftovers aside - there's nothing to fill the fallow time. Except, of course, attending to the small matter of fashioning over-ambitious plans for the new you. "I will go to the gym." "I will give up smoking." "I will learn that instrument." Yes, ladies and gentlemen, it is perhaps the most ridiculous global phenomenon of them all: the new year's resolution.
The success rate is so low that it's difficult to see new year's resolutions as anything more than a seasonal tradition, alongside leaving mince pies out for Santa. One year, The Observer newspaper was so disbelieving that anyone actually kept them that it followed a group of people for six months to see if they'd followed through with their resolutions to get rid of weight, debt or cigarettes. Unbelievably, it turned out that most had. But there was an element of cheating. They only succeeded through the professional assistance of financial advisers and life coaches that The Observer had put them in touch with. Perhaps that should be a resolution in itself: get a life coach.
It would make a lot of sense. As anyone who has tried and failed to keep a new year's resolution knows, it is exceptionally hard to make such big life changes on your own. So why has the notion of the new year's resolution endured? To understand, we must travel back 4,000 years, to ancient Iraq. The Babylonians can truly lay claim to having invented the new year's resolution. Their new year parties lasted a whopping 11 days, and though they weren't actually in December they celebrated renewal and, impressively, the revitalisation of society, in fine style. They also set down their hopes for the forthcoming months, which included resolving to return borrowed farm equipment to its rightful owner - because, come on, who hasn't felt a pang of guilt about not returning that combine harvester?
The resolutions that played a part in the Roman new year, formalised by Julius Caesar in 46BC, tell us a little more about the motivation to make resolutions. The Romans were a superstitious bunch, and, in giving new year gifts (olive branches from sacred trees, coins of the god Janus), they were in fact hoping to throw out whatever bad luck they'd had in the old year and replace it with good luck in the new.
So it's this hope of betterment from which all our new year's resolutions stem. There are barely any variations across the world - we all do it, no matter what nationality or language we speak. It derives from a basic human desire to reflect upon what you may have done wrong - or not done at all - in the year that has passed and try to atone for that with better behaviour in the year to come. The problem is, we are fallible. Last year, a British mental heath charity advised people not to focus on problems or insecurities when they made resolutions, but instead to think about starting small - being active or going green - because if your well-meaning plans fail by mid-January, then you're probably going to feel worse than you did before you made them.
Psychological research into the new year conducted by professors at the University of Minnesota concluded that a whopping 80 per cent of resolutions have been broken by Valentine's Day. And if you think university research is taking matters slightly too far, then an official chart of popular resolutions from an official US government website surely trumps even that. Naturally, number one is to lose weight, and in these financially straitened times you'd expect that to be followed by managing debt, saving money and getting a better job. But we rather like the ideas, lower down the chart, of taking a trip or volunteering.
No wonder the British psychologist Cliff Arnall says the best time to make a resolution is not December 31 at all but - and unbelievably he's worked this out mathematically - May 18. Arnall shot to fame when he proposed that the most depressing day of the year is January 24, when the mental decline we're already experiencing during new year reaches its lowest point. All of this is, of course, based on the changing of the seasons in northern Europe, but his last point does ring true: that on May 18 you're likely to make decisions on your future because you want to. On December 31, you're doing it when you're "supposed" to.
Literature has had plenty to say on the matter and, as so often, Mark Twain summed up the new year dichotomy best: "Yesterday, everybody smoked his last cigar, took his last drink and swore his last oath. Today, we are a pious and exemplary community. Thirty days from now, we shall have cast our reformation to the winds and gone to cutting our ancient shortcomings considerably shorter than ever." True, but not exactly constructive: better to leave it to Bridget Jones in Helen Fielding's famous diary to come up with the sensible solution. "I do think new year's resolutions can't technically be expected to begin on New Year's Day," she writes. "Dieting on New Year's Day isn't a good idea as you can't eat rationally and really need to be free to consume whatever is necessary, moment by moment. I think it would be much more sensible if resolutions began on January the second."
And there, from the pen of a dappy fictional London PR girl, comes wisdom.