One lazy Sunday afternoon, I asked my mum if she had made any New Year’s resolutions.
“Oh I have a lot. I want to strike 4D and have more money, to stay in a big house, and I want to travel around the world.”
I looked up from my phone, unsure if she was mocking my question with her frivolous and seemingly sarcastic response—the way some mothers do when you push their buttons by saying something stupid.
No traces of annoyance on her face. I ventured, “So you want to be a millionaire is it?”
“Yah of course, who doesn’t? Oh and I also want your brother to score good results. Every year I wish for the same thing.”
In the literal sense, a New Year’s resolution (i.e. to have resolve) is associated with the act of committing oneself to a particular goal or objective, over the course of an upcoming year, in order to achieve outcomes that are oriented towards self-improvement. The Cambridge English dictionary defines this as, “A promise that you make to yourself to start doing something good or stop doing something bad on the first day of the year.”
Implicit in this definition is the concept of human agency; that the role and responsibility of each individual in actively establishing those goals, dutifully working towards, and eventually accomplishing them, should be at the core of each and every New Year’s resolution.
But there was no indication that my mum was about to pour her heart, soul, and determination into amassing more money, upgrading her apartment, or embarking on a round-the-world trip. Unless we’re talking about the time she spent queuing up to buy the occasional 4D at the neighbourhood kiosk.
In fact, the part about wanting my brother to achieve straight As wasn’t even contingent upon her own actions or efforts at all. It depended on my brother, and whether he fancied getting his teenage ass off the sofa to finally start working on that long overdue homework.
For his own good. Not hers. Or at least not directly.
For my mum, the concept of a New Year’s resolution isn’t tied to her own personal development in the slightest. It most definitely is not the product of any sort of desire to stop doing something bad, or start doing something good.
Her resolutions do not involve “doing” anything. There is nothing to be “done”, except pray and wait patiently for some kind of windfall to arrive. They revolve around her dreams, hopes, and aspirations, including (or rather, especially) those of the not-so-rational variety. They also encompass none of the self-sacrifice, dollars spent, man-hours invested, blood, sweat, and tears shed in what is supposed to be typical of a New Year’s resolution.
Heck, she didn’t even bother with the TOTO Hongbao Draw.
As February ends, have concerns over Covid-19 completely overridden these yearly resolutions, making handwashing, mask-wearing, and sanitiser-spraying (important as they are) our first and only priorities?
Is it perhaps a good time to evaluate the current state of our New Year’s resolutions, along with the intentions, motivations, or preconceived notions that underlie them?
Have some of us, like my mum, possibly misconstrued the meaning of a New Year’s resolution?
I turned to my brother, who can always be relied upon for some smart-alecky and/or condescending comment on just about every subject matter under the sun.
“New Year’s resolutions? Eh, can you talk to my daruma instead?”
(For the uninitiated, a daruma is a Japanese doll that symbolises luck. In Japan, there is a tradition where people pray for fulfilment of their wishes by painting one of the daruma’s eyes black. The other eye is painted in when those wishes have been fulfilled.)
If the daruma could speak, I am more than certain it would tell me that my brother’s resolutions would be the following (in no order of importance): become the top student, get a girlfriend, and get buffer/fitter/more ripped with 5% body fat. All of which are irrational and impossible to attain.
“Hey be serious. Did you make any New Year’s resolutions?”
“It’s not my kind of thing. Like I don’t think it works. But whatever floats your boat.”
Upon more prodding, my brother showed me an Instagram post from a school friend, who in addition to achieving a specific number of pull-ups/push-ups/sit-ups, had resolved last year to “cut down on vulgar language”.
“Clearly doesn’t work. The amount of ‘fucks’ he still uses in one sentence, even better than me.”
Judging from my brother’s Instagram feed, these 17 and 18-year-olds are not delusional (many sincere apologies to my mum) to the extent that “become a millionaire” would be their New Year’s resolution. It appears they understand that the standard New Year’s resolution—a la Cambridge English dictionary—should be practically and sensibly directed towards the betterment of the self.
We’re only into the second month of 2020.
Naturally, we would expect the people who have made their yearly resolutions to still have them fresh in their minds, conscientiously working towards those self-imposed aims of washboard abs/obscene amount of money in the bank/filial piety/insert materialistic ambition/insert vainpot ideal/insert example of good behaviour and pristine morals.
Because last I checked with my brother just a few days ago, that shit-mouthed school friend of his is not currently adopting a more polite vocabulary, and has actually decided to subvert the universally-accepted gesture for “hello” in favour of the equally universal handsign for “fuck you”:
“Waved at him in the canteen. Then he pointed the middle finger at me. Then I pointed back. Then some girl was staring at us.”
Talk about tenacity.
Indeed, statistical surveys have shown that a majority of people fail to adhere to their New Year’s resolutions, and that many begin to abandon them by the end of January.
For most of us, the first of January feels very much like a new start, a clean slate on which to forget the past year’s troubles; to move forward with gusto and make radical changes for a better year ahead. New year, new me.
Yet as the days roll by, our immediate needs and commitments manifest themselves to wipe away that initial enthusiasm. Our yearly resolutions, idealistic goals established while drunk on alcohol on New Year’s Eve and detached from the pressing demands of day-to-day life, transform into burdens which we push to the far ends of our consciousness. The first of February becomes just an ordinary day, not unlike any other.
And on an ordinary day, New Year’s resolutions don’t seem to matter.
If resolutions are really so difficult to follow through, is there any value or utility in making those promises to ourselves?
Might our New Year’s resolutions just be a ritualistic practice to usher in a new beginning, or worse still, fodder for our Instagram posts, allowing us to boast about how dedicated we are to self-improvement? Or lamenting in the subsequent year about how terribly we have failed in those resolutions, complete with a self-deprecating joke in the caption?
Every year in online commentaries, academics, motivational coaches, psychologists, and behavioural specialists offer advice to teach us the “right way” to make New Year’s resolutions. Goals should be purpose-based and conveyed in a SMART (Specific, Measurable, Achievable, Realistic, Time-Bound) manner so that we can feel sufficiently motivated to achieve them. Broad declarations of intent (e.g. lose weight, stop smoking) are too vague and will not facilitate commitment. We must find and articulate personal significance in our resolutions. So on and so forth.
While these suggestions provide objective, scientific input regarding the making and breaking of New Year’s resolutions, it strikes me as odd that we would look to such experts for tips on how to invoke some semblance of personal meaning in our resolutions.
Sure, they might help a few individuals set a more decent New Year’s resolution—one that is logical and pragmatic enough to be achievable. However, they do not and cannot help them in actually achieving their resolutions. Some of those youngsters on Instagram can write a pretty damn SMART, purpose-based resolution (e.g. do x number of sit-ups in order to get Gold for NAPFA), but nevertheless fail to accomplish them.
Contrary to what these experts recommend, there is no one-size-fits-all approach or method to a successful New Year’s resolution. They would not have answers for why Youth A achieved x number of sit-ups but Youth B did not. They will not know that Youth A had the privilege of rich parents willing to fund his expensive gym lessons with a personal trainer. They will not know that Youth B had to juggle studies and a part-time role at McDonald’s, with virtually no physical or mental capacity to work on his sit-ups.
Simply put, the aforementioned experts are but strangers to us; outsiders to our experiences who have no access to our thoughts, feelings, and fears. They do a solid job telling us exactly how to formulate a clear, succinct, specifically-framed, grade A+ New Year’s resolution that even a GP teacher would be proud of. But more fluent semantics in a resolution do not necessarily translate into its success.
The various academics, motivational coaches, psychologists, and behavioural specialists out there do not live our lives. They will never be aware of our unique circumstances and how we might have struggled to achieve (or ultimately fail at) those poorly-written, non-SMART New Year’s resolutions.
Perhaps then, it is time to stop reading those yearly commentaries.
Don’t get me wrong: I am in no way trying to dissuade anyone from making and sticking to their New Year’s resolutions.
My only gripe is that the concept of a New Year’s resolution has become so ingrained in the popular imagination; so commonsensical to the point of being taken for granted, its meaning and usefulness never questioned—until today.
The ancient Babylonians made New Year’s resolutions as promises of good behaviour to the gods, an exchange for good weather and harvest. In our contemporary period, these religious underpinnings of New Year’s resolutions have disappeared, only to be replaced with a wholly secular (even mundane) connotation. Just as meanings attached to the New Year’s resolution are fluid and have changed over time, interpretations applied to it can vary across individuals.
Some, like my mum, view it as their far-flung hopes (and where is the crime in that?). Some choose to comply with the standard lexicon, writing well thought out resolutions with a clear purpose and quantifiable outcomes. Others of the cynical sort toss away and screw the idea of a resolution completely, deeming it as impractical and naïve in the face of life’s vicissitudes.
Hence, my answer would be that there is no point to our New Year’s resolutions. There is neither a grand narrative, nor morals, values, and principles to a New Year’s resolution. There are merely our own distinct perspectives, worldviews, and priorities, creating New Year’s resolutions which are important only to the person who made them.
There is no shame in failing our New Year’s resolutions. We are not and do not have to be accountable to anyone for failing those resolutions. The choice to soldier on, fight, and consequently attain our resolutions do not automatically make us superior to those who have tried and failed. Or even those who gave up without trying.
As with everything else in the world, New Year’s resolutions are what we make of it.
And in the words of a cocky 17-year-old, “Whatever floats your boat.”