The History of New Year’s Resolutions and Ideas for Creating Your Own

Michael Kelly and Sarita Harbour

A new year is upon us. With that comes opportunity for a fresh start at becoming the best you yet. Setting New Year’s resolutions for self-improvement isn’t something new, though. Cultures have been setting yearly resolutions for the last 4,000 years. You’d think that after so many years we’d be pros at New Year’s resolutions—but we’re still working on it. Learn how our ancestors handled resolutions, areas of your life you can improve on for the new year and some of the best ways to meet your goals.


Committing to “be better” in a new year may have started with the ancient Babylonians 4,000 years ago. Babylonians believed that if they didn’t follow through with their resolutions, they’d fall out of favor with the gods. Around 46 B.C., ancient Rome introduced a calendar with January 1 as the start of the new year. January was named after the Roman God Janus, who looks both forward and backward. Romans believed January was a time to review their behavior of the past year and commit to bettering themselves.

In 1740 in England, The Methodist Church introduced the Covenant Renewal Service. This service was usually held on New Year’s Eve or New Year’s Day. It was a more spiritual alternative to the typical rambunctious celebrations of the day. The service encouraged participants to reflect on the previous year’s mistakes and resolve to “do better” in the upcoming year.

These traditions aren’t so different from how we view New Year’s today. Almost half of the US population makes resolutions to better themselves in the coming year. Culturally, we’ve also made New Year’s a time to reconnect with family and friends. This is often noted by the celebratory singing of Auld Lang Syne, a lyrical poem about reconnecting with old friends and looking back at past events of the year.

Are We Keeping Our Resolutions?

Many of us still make New Year’s resolutions today. According to a 2017 survey, 41% of Americans say they typically make New Year’s resolutions, 17% saying they infrequently make resolutions, and 42% saying they never make resolutions.

In 2017, the top resolutions in the United States were:

  • To lose weight or eat healthier (21.4%)
  • To make life or self-improvements (12.3%)
  • To make better financial decisions (8.5 %)

This same survey found that just 9.2% of respondents reported they were successful in achieving their resolutions.

Did you accomplish your goals in 2018? Let us know in comments.

Self-Care: Physically, Mentally, Emotionally

Taking care of your body and mind is a popular resolution in several parts of the world. Almost 20% of Germans and 20.8% of respondents in the United Kingdom said they planned to eat healthier food as part of their 2016 New Year’s resolutions. Additionally, 18.7% of German and 18.4% of U.K. respondents planned to start exercising.

Now could be the time to get proactive about your physical care. Take that class, start those lessons, or book those massages you’ve been putting off.

Want to exercise your mental muscles and reduce stress? Join a book club or journal daily. You can also explore your creative crafting side through woodworking, painting, or needlework. Studies show that journaling or knitting provide stress-reducing benefits. So consider including them among your self-care resolutions.

Make Your Home a Haven

Some people resolve to tackle home improvement projects as part of their resolutions. Unfortunately, most find the big jobs overwhelming and expensive. Instead of planning huge renovations, consider using 2018 as a year to make your home “homey.” Resolve to make simple changes to your home that reflect your interests and personality.

Focus on introducing elements important to creating a haven for you and your family. For example, create photo displays of favorite family trips to remind your children and grandchildren of happy times. Or organize and declutter rooms (a search for “decluttering as a 2017 New Year’s resolution” gets over 11 million hits!). Or create an indoor container garden or outdoor garden space for a relaxing retreat.

One Weekend to Cleaner Closets

Focus on Your Financial Well-Being

If you’re determined to get your financial house in order in 2018, you aren’t alone. Saving more money or paying off debt are popular New Year’s resolutions in the United States, United Kingdom and Germany. And resolving to “do better financially” isn’t new. Even the ancient Babylonians renewed commitments to pay off money owed in the New Year!

Try a new approach to improving your finances, especially if you were unsuccessful in previous years. Book an appointment to get some professional financial advice. A customized financial plan can help you identify your goals and assess your progress.

And don’t forget, your financial health also includes risk management. Think about your auto and home insurance, life insurance and emergency savings.

Travel the World…or at Least the State

According to the stats, 6.3% of Americans said they wanted to “do more exciting things” as part of their 2016 New Year’s resolutions, while 6.2% wanted to “spend more time with family and close friends.” Why not do both?

Resolve to rekindle old friendships and see new places this year by traveling to see friends or family members you’ve fallen out of touch with. Or plan to visit areas you’ve always dreamt of but never had a chance to visit. Depending on your budget and available time, this could be as simple as a weekend getaway to a neighboring state or town, or a month-long vacation in another country.

Evolve Through Education

Self-improvement is another popular resolution that’s been around for at least 300 years (back to John Wesley in the 1700s when New Year’s Day churchgoers planned to “live better” in the coming year), and maybe longer.

Perhaps your self-improvement involves education. Are you ready to formally pursue a degree you never had time for? Maybe you’re interested in simply auditing classes in a subject you’ve always wanted to learn more about. Whatever the case, choose the method best suited to your lifestyle — online courses, DVDs, or even attending a local college. Taking courses, lessons, or pursuing a degree can help keep your mind sharp and give you the opportunity to learn more about something you love. And, in many states, eligible older adults may attend classes for free or at a reduced rate at local colleges.

If you’re really ready for adventure, why not continue your lifelong learning while traveling? These trips let you combine travel with classes, while you’re visiting new places either in the United States or internationally.

Although making New Year’s resolutions may date back to the time of the Babylonian and Roman empires, today’s most popular resolutions continue as variations on those made by ancient peoples.

It sounds so simple, doesn’t it?

  • Take a page out of history
  • Set goals for self-improvement physically, financially, and mentally
  • Become the best you yet in 2019

Good luck, and Happy New Year!

Looking for more tips to becoming the best you in all aspects of your life? Find them in our monthly newsletter.

Learn about:

  • Frugal activities that may not be worth the effort
  • Habits to increase longevity
  • Low-impact yoga poses to try, and their benefits

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