While many ancient traditions celebrate the beginning of a new year or season with an emphasis on renewal or re-birth, the New Year’s resolution as a means of self-improvement may be a uniquely American tradition.
And we may have one of the country's earliest religious traditions, Protestantism -- along with our colonial British legacy -- to thank.
In a classic review for the Oxford Journal’s Social Forces, sociologist Isidor Thorner argued in 1951 that setting resolutions at the beginning of the new year is a legacy from our Protestant forbears, and that they now function as a weakened, secularized version of what used to be "an earlier religious attitude of life-long emotional discipline.”
Ascetic Protestantism, a denomination of Christianity that emphasizes hard work and the denial of worldly pleasure, has been credited with everything from the success of American Capitalism to America’s “prudish” sexual values. While they never wanted to appear beholden to earthly indulgence, early adherents believed that material wealth and worldly success were outward signs of spiritual rectitude and God’s favor.
Their New Year’s customs reflected this worldview. Thorner hypothesized that secular New Year’s Resolutions may be a tradition rooted in watch night services, which were popularized by the Methodist church in 18th century England as a way to ring in the New Year in a more spiritual, contemplative way, as opposed to raucous, all-night partying.
The services were a chance to reflect on the past year and make spiritual resolutions for the coming year, Thorner explained. The practice also spread to other denominations, wrote an English journalist in 1870, and the resolutions tended to reflect Protestant ideals like emotional and physical restraint in the face of life’s indulgences.
After informally surveying people from around the world via written correspondence, Thorner came to the conclusion that only countries with an English-speaking, Protestant background like Australia, England, Wales, Scotland, Northern Ireland and South Africa, had a strong tradition of making New Year’s Resolutions, while other countries, most notably in South America and the then-USSR, did not.
But despite an obvious psychological similarity, Thorner wasn’t able to pinpoint exactly when secularized New Year’s Resolutions came into vogue, or whether they originated in England or the United States. Ultimately, he called the question “of little importance” and said if New Year’s resolutions didn’t originate in Methodism, then they probably came from another strain of ascetic Protestantism.
Now, of course, instead of dedicating our lives to our conception of God, we are more likely to promise to lose weight and go to the gym religiously. But even a peek at New Year’s Resolutions from our recent past show that Americans’ top resolutions, while still secular, seemed to have been a lot more “spiritual" than they are now.
Resolutions For 1947 - Gallup Poll
1. Improve my disposition, be more understanding, control my temper
2. Improve my character, live a better life
3. Stop smoking, smoke less
4. Save more money
5. Stop drinking, drink less
6. Be more religious, go to church oftener
7. Be more efficient, do a better job
8. Take better care of my health
9. Take greater part in home life
10. Lose (or gain) weight
"The typically Protestant character of these resolutions is self-evident," Thorner remarked. Note too that weight also makes an appearance on the list, but in 1947 some people actually resolved to gain weight. Compare the 1947 list to University of Scranton’s list for 2014, in which weight loss shoots to the top, and resolutions to strengthen one’s character or be more religious all but disappear.
1. Lose weight
2. Getting organized
3. Spend less, save more
4. Enjoy life to the fullest
5. Stay fit and healthy
6. Learn something exciting
7. Quit smoking
8. Help others in their dreams
9. Fall in love
10. Spend more time with family
So why did weight loss become so important to us? Perhaps it’s related to the fact that, as a nation, we’re the heaviest we’ve ever been. After all, along with the extra pounds come physical conditions like diabetes and cardiovascular disease, as well as social stigmas like bullying and weight discrimination. But Abigail Saguy, a sociology and gender studies professor at University of California, Los Angeles, points out that bodies -- especially women’s bodies -- have always been imbued with some kind of social meaning, and she suspects that people are more interested in enjoying the elevated status of a socially acceptable body than improved health outcomes.
“In the U.S. and other wealthy nations, you’ll find this inverse relationship between status and weight, so that higher-status people are the ones who can afford personal chefs, personal trainers and gym memberships,” said Saguy, who wrote a book on the topic called What’s Wrong With Fat. “It’s now the slim and toned physique that requires an investment of resources and signals status.” Because of how much status and privilege is associated with thinness, it’s no surprise that weight loss is the number one goal for New Year’s resolutions, Saguy concluded. But she called Americans’ priorities, as revealed in the top-ranked New Year’s Resolutions, “sad” and selfish.
“Wouldn’t it be nice if people had new year’s resolutions like help the needy, give more money to charity, be more involved in social causes, or be a better friend or parent or neighbor?” she asked. “I’d love for those to be the focus at the new year; instead, it’s, ‘How can I be thinner and better conformed to social expectations in the hopes of having more privilege?’ "
But medical sociologist Natalie Boero of San Jose State University points out that, in today’s world, weight is tied up with all sorts of moral and spiritual issues. In other words, in addition to signaling financial wealth or high social status, a trim figure also signals goodness, responsibility and self-discipline — which might not be so far off from how the New Year’s Resolution tradition started.
“At least since the mid-twentieth century, we’ve associated weight and health with moral virtue, and since New Year’s is a time to remake yourself or start anew, it makes sense that dieting or physical transformation would be a part of that,” said Boero. "People who are larger are very aware of the fact that we see weight as an outer sign of inner virtue.” As Boero wrote in her book, Killer Fat: Media, Medicine and Morals in the American Obesity Epidemic, “fatness is about almost anything else but health.”
“When you ask people why they diet, health is usually three or four down the list,” explained Boero. “It’s often to look better, alleviate stigma, feel normal, consider themselves dateable or to make their children proud.” Boero might be on to something there. Given America’s increasing secularization, weight loss could, at least subconsciously, be a proxy for character building or the improvement of one's "disposition" as a way to signal spiritual rectitude and morality.
Bottom line: instead of resolving to live moral lives, most of us are just trying to lose weight. But at the end of the day, those two things may simply be different expressions of the same desire: to be "good," or at least better than last year.