Resolutions have a low success rate. So why do we make them, and how long have we been making them?

Changing for the New Year

It’s the first day of 2018. Plenty of people are up and at the gym or putting their phones down as they begin working on their New Year’s resolutions.

Though it’s a pretty well documented fact that most New Year’s resolutions fail, we keep making them – and we’re not alone. The custom of making New Year’s resolutions is most common in the West, but it happens all over the world.

According to WalletHub, 67 percent of Americans make resolutions.

The majority of resolutions, 49 percent, are fitness or weight-loss goals, a third of resolutions are financial resolutions, like paying off debts or loans and saving more money, 26 percent of resolutions have to do with education or career goals, and 16 percent are habit-breaking goals, such as stop smoking or drinking less.

Only 9.2 percent are successful in achieving those resolutions.

So, if the percentage is so low, why do people make resolutions? When did the New Year mark the time for personal change?

According to history.com, the tradition might date back as far as the ancient Babylonians 4,000 years ago. They were the first to hold recorded celebrations in honor of a new year that began in mid-March when the crops were planted.

During a 12-day religious festival known as Akitu, the Babylonians crowned a new king or reaffirmed their loyalty to the reigning king. They would make promises to the gods to pay their debts and return any objects they had borrowed. These promises could be considered the beginnings of New Year’s resolutions. If the Babylonians kept to their word, their gods would bestow favor on them for the coming year. If not, they would fall out of the gods’ favor.

The ancient Romans had a similar celebration for the god Janus. Julius Caesar established Jan. 1 as the beginning of the new year around 46 B.C.E. January is named after Janus the two-faced god who inhabits doorways and arches. Believing that Janus symbolically looked backwards into the previous year and ahead into the future, the Romans offered sacrifices to the deity and made promises of good conduct for the coming year.

For early Christians, the first day of a new year became the traditional occasion for thinking about one’s past mistakes and resolving to do and be better in the future. The founder of Methodism, an English clergyman named John Wesley, created a Covenant Renewal Service that was commonly held on New Year’s Eve or New Year’s Day. These services included readings from Scriptures and hymn singing, and served as a spiritual alternative to the raucous celebrations normally held to celebrate the coming of a new year. These “watch night services” are still popular among Evangelical and Protestant congregations.

Even with their religious roots, New Year’s resolutions today are a mostly secular practice. Instead of making promises to the gods, most people make resolutions only to themselves, and focus purely on self-improvement, which could be one reason so many resolutions fail.

However, the most common reason for participants failing their New Year’s resolutions was setting themselves unrealistic goals, 35 percent, while 33 percent didn’t keep track of their progress and a further 23 percent forgot about it. About one in 10 respondents claimed they made too many resolutions.

Whether for religious reasons or personal improvement, the New Year is upon us. Change is here, and this is the season to embrace it.

Sarah Pruitt of history.com contributed to this article.