If you’ve drawn up resolutions prior to or while heading into the New Year’s Eve party, you may take comfort in the fact that many people around you have followed the same practice. In fact, a good forty percent of the American population and elsewhere in the Western Hemisphere do indulge in such activities. The tradition is becoming equally popular in the Eastern Hemisphere. Regardless of what resolution you commit to, the goal is to improve life in the coming year.

Resolutions can come in many forms. Some people make a promise to change a bad habit, such as quitting smoking or eating less junk food. Others aspire to develop a positive habit, such as starting an exercise program, volunteering in their community, or recycling more.

The origin of making New Year's resolutions rests with the Babylonians, who reportedly made promises to the gods in hopes they'd earn good favor in the coming year. They often resolved to get out of debt.

Early Romans named January after Janus, a mythical god with two faces — one looking forward, one looking backward. On December 31, the Romans imagined Janus looking backward into the old year and forward into the new year. This became a symbolic time for the Romans to make resolutions for the new year and forgive enemies for past animosities.

The Romans also believed Janus could forgive them for their wrongdoings in the previous year. The Romans would give gifts and make promises, believing Janus would see this and bless them in the year ahead.

And thus the New Year's resolution was born!

This tradition has many other religious parallels. During Judaism's New Year, Rosh Hashanah, through the High Holidays and culminating in Yom Kippur (the Day of Atonement), one is to reflect upon one's wrongdoings over the year and both seek and offer forgiveness. People can act similarly during the Christian liturgical season of Lent, although the motive behind this holiday is more of sacrifice than of responsibility. In fact, the Methodist practice of New Year's resolutions came, in part, from the Lenten sacrifices.

On the flip side, New Year’s resolutions are a bit like babies: They’re fun to make but extremely difficult to maintain.

Each January, roughly one in three Americans resolve to better themselves in some way. A much smaller percentage of people actually make good on those resolutions. While about 75% of people stick to their goals for at least a week, less than half (46%) are still on target six months later, a 2002 study found.

Bad habits are hard to give up —and they're impossible to give up if we try to break them all at once. Thus, New Year's resolutions are exactly the wrong way to change our behavior. Willpower, like a bicep, can only exert itself so long before it gives out; it's an extremely limited mental resource.

The brain area largely responsible for willpower, the prefrontal cortex, is located just behind the forehead. While this bit of tissue has greatly expanded during human evolution, it probably hasn't expanded enough. That's because the prefrontal cortex has many other things to worry about besides New Year's resolutions. For instance, scientists have discovered that this chunk of cortex is also in charge of keeping us focused, handling short-term memory and solving abstract problems. Asking it to lose weight is often asking it to do one thing too many.

Instead, we should respect the feebleness of self-control, and spread our resolutions out over the entire year. The latest neuroscience research suggests spreading resolutions out over time is the best approach.

The lesson learned from a number of psychological and behavioral experiments conducted on humans is that the prefrontal cortex can be bulked up, and that practicing mental discipline in one area, such as posture, can make it easier to resist decadent dessert. And when a dangerous desire starts coming on, just remember: Gritting your teeth isn't the best approach, as even the strongest mental muscles quickly get tired.

Agreed that it's hard to keep up the enthusiasm months after you've swept up the confetti, but it's not impossible.

Instead of resolving to “lose weight” or “eat healthier,” set a specific goal — say, lose a pound a week. And limit yourself to one big resolution at a time. If you’re trying to quit smoking or save money, don’t bother counting how many calories you consume or burn up. With a finite supply of willpower, it’s tough enough to keep one resolution.

This year, if you haven’t done it already, just pick one worthy resolution, and stick with it.

•        Resolutions can be goals you want to accomplish over a short period of time (short-term goals) or goals you want to accomplish over a year or many years (long-term goals). Whether you want to send more letters to your grandparents, set up a lemonade stand, spend more time outdoors, or learn something new by visiting Wonderopolis every day, it's great for you and your friends and family members to set goals! Make a list of long- and short-term resolutions and keep track of your progress.

•        Ask friends and family members about the New Year's resolutions they've made in the past. Which ones have they kept successfully? Which ones have they failed to keep? Ask them for advice about what types of resolutions to make and how to succeed in keeping the resolutions you make.

•        How do you and your friends and family members celebrate New Year's Eve and New Year's Day? Whatever you happen to do this year, take some time to talk to others about their hopes and dreams for the new year. What resolutions are they making? Make a list of others' resolutions and revisit them every month or so throughout the course of the next year. Be encouraging when you notice others struggling to maintain their resolutions, and celebrate when you notice others succeeding!



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