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Fit For You: The Cultural Origins Of New Year's Resolutions

Cultural traditions celebrating the New Year have been around for thousands of years, but modern societies have centered them on individualism.

How are your New Year’s resolutions coming along? If you’re like many people, your determination to exercise more, eat healthier, lose weight, or get better rest isn’t as strong as it was on Jan. 1. By the second week of February, about 80% of people who made resolutions have failed.

READ: Diets Don't Equal A Healthy Lifestyle

So, when did this whole “new year, new you” tradition start? Simon Bronner, an expert in folklore and the dean of UW-Milwaukee’s College of General Studies, says that celebrating the new year with reflection and the setting of intentions is thousands of years old.

Credit Claudio Divizia /
This ancient Roman coin shows Janus, the two-faced god of change and beginnings. Romans would give offerings to Janus on Jan. 1st with the hopes of gaining good fortune for the new year.

Greek and Roman customs have primarily influenced the way we celebrate the new year and set our resolutions, according to Bronner. The modern calendar was set by Julius Ceasar. It nods to the mythology and connection to Janus — the god of beginnings and ends. "And so this is a time that we would be thinking about what has passed and what we want for the future," he explains.

There are many global traditions regarding the new year and changes in ourselves that will reflect the change in the calendar throughout the year — such as the Chinese New Year that's celebrated in late January. But Bronner says modern western society has changed the way we celebrate the new year and the traditions it follows. 

"It’s not as if the traditions are the same that they were in ancient times. For now, the big difference is the individualism that has grown particularly in modern, complex societies," he notes.

Bronner suggests that we look at the new year and its traditions, like resolutions, as an opportunity to look more introspectively and inward during this time. Rather than making a resolution or ultimatum you won't follow through with, try making goals that allow you some wiggle room to create forgiveness toward yourself if you can't follow through. 

"A lot of the resolutions that were a part of cultural celebrations before were on behalf of the community and what the community needs to do," says Bronner. "Post-Modern traditions are not only individualistic, but they are related to what other people think of us, and that's not the best motivation for making change." 

Lake Effect's Audrey Nowakowski sat down with Bronner to dive into the cultural origins of New Year’s resolutions and how it evolved into today’s practices:

Audrey Nowakowski hosts and produces Lake Effect. She joined WUWM in 2014.
Maggie Holdorf
Maggie Holdorf started as a WUWM Lake Effect intern in September 2019.