- - Sunday, December 31, 2017


Hope springs eternal, especially at the start of a new year when the desire for a better life is matched by vows to eat less, exercise more and avoid one or all of the seven deadly sins. Meghan Markle, soon to be a princess in Merry Old England, tells the London Daily Mail that she’s giving up swearing and biting her nails, two noble — if not yet royal — resolutions. But will she succeed?

A host of pollsters, and psychologists with experience in human nature (and that includes all of us) say she probably won’t. Nevertheless, she deserves a silver star for effort.

Only 4 of 10 Americans who make those well-meaning resolutions every year, says the Marist Institute for Public Opinion, can expect to be still resolute six months later, and other estimates put the figure at less than 1 in 10.

Nevertheless, it’s not time to give up yet. The optimistic newspaper Business Insider estimates that though 80 percent of resolutions fail by the second week of February, there are ways to improve those odds. These include setting realistic goals, like going on a diet, saving money and practicing good behavior. The newspaper suggests “coding,” or learning a skill that will help the seriously resolute keep up with computer geeks across the land who speak fluent HTML, CSS, JAVAScript, PHP, Python and MySQL. (If you have to ask, don’t.)

Making a fresh start seems to be wired into human nature; there are centuries of human history to back that up. The ancient Babylonians may have been the first people on record making resolutions. That was 4,000 years ago, and they made promises to their pagan gods that, if kept, would earn divine favors. Babylonians borrowers thought it best to return that urn or a neighbor’s scythe to avoid facing pagan wrath.

In ancient Rome Julius Caesar and the Roman god Janus transacted new year’s vows with sacrifices and promises. Janus had the gift of looking both backward to the past, where his sins and shortcomings lay, and to the future, where hope lives. Janus may have been two-faced, but Caesar decreed that the cold and dismal first month of the year, for which there is not much nice to say, be named for him. As humanity stumbled on in fits and starts, John Wesley, the Anglican founder of Methodism who never became a Methodist himself, being methodical, wrote the Covenant Renewal Service for looking back at past mistakes and vowing earnestly to do better. Similar opportunities are present in the Jewish observance of Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur, but those holidays are tied to the Hebrew calendar, not the Roman one. Christian “watch-night services” on New Year’s Eve include prayers to do better in the new year.

In the end it comes down to individual commitment, as nearly everything does. John Bargh, a social psychologist at Yale, tells Business Insider that “people should only resolve to try something new this year if it’s really important to them personally, and it’s something they would want to change even when no one else is watching.”

Failures are inevitable. Prof. Bargh says this isn’t the end of the world. “People enjoy sharing their failures with others,” the professor says. “Bragging about how we just can’t resist our favorite temptations can foster a sense of belonging and camaraderie among the not-so-resolved.” But the Roman poet Ovid wrote that “dripping water hollows out stone not through force, but through persistence.” It’s time to hit the crowded gym.

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