Making resolutions has become so engrained in our celebration of the New Year that it has begun to feel more like an obligatory ritual than a true setting of goals and plan for achievement. A change in our attitude toward making resolutions might help us solve an array of the problems we face, from household kitchen tables to the floor of Congress.
Way back in the days of yore, the Roman Empire had a lot of trouble figuring out the calendar. It kept falling out of sync with the sun. Luckily, Julius Caesar got down to business, brought in a bunch of experts — perhaps the world’s first consultants — and solved the calendar crisis by adding two new months to the previously 10-month annual cycle. One of the two months was Januarius, and, in homage to Janus, for whom the month was named, Caesar set it as the first of the year. Thus Jan. 1 became New Year’s Day.
Janus was a two-faced god: one to look back into the old year and one to look forward into the coming year. He was also the god of beginnings, a perfect patron for new years. The Romans began celebrating the New Year by making offerings to Janus and sharing gifts, food and — of course — wine with each other. These acts were demonstrations of the first Roman New Year’s resolution, a growing custom that was mostly just to be good to others in the year to come. The Babylonians, whose new year started on the vernal equinox, had a similar practice of making resolutions at the start of spring (the most common of which was, apparently, to return borrowed farm equipment).
As the centuries passed, the tradition of resolutions grew into a practice of annual self-reflection and commitment to self-improvement. In ancient Rome, the average life expectancy was 30 years. Today the average world life expectancy is 70 years. With so many more years to look forward to, we carry a much greater burden to prepare for our own futures. Many of the things we are encouraged to do to have a better future life — save money, eat more healthily, exercise, get enough sleep, etc. — come at a cost to our current self. As a result, we don’t often love doing them. This presents an inter-temporal challenge to our selves: We benefit from the enjoyment of charging expenses today but must sacrifice future income to pay our Visa bill. Far too frequently, we don’t choose in favor of our future self, even if we want to.
We often solve this dilemma through commitment devices. We hire a personal trainer so we can’t skip workouts; we volunteer to be the designated driver so we can’t over-imbibe. There is a disconnect between our current self and our future self, and that plays out as much on the personal scale as it does on a national scale. Making resolutions — as far as I understand them — is one such commitment device to help us reconcile our future and present selves over the course of the year.
As it turned out, this year’s resolution season coincided with yet another Congressional debacle as our lawmakers scampered about trying to solve the fiscal cliff. A full discussion of that is fodder for another column, but I’d like to highlight this coincidence and just look at it in terms of resolutions.
Debt ceilings and policy fade-outs are commitment tools lawmakers pass to bind the hands of their future selves. As with our individual choices, doing what is best for the future of the country sometimes comes at a cost to the present. To keep our country on track — like our setting of New Year’s resolutions — Congress often sets limits against its future self.
This is particularly interesting because the individuals that make up the present Congress and future Congress aren’t always the same. Therefore, current lawmakers are often binding future lawmakers and future citizens to decisions they didn’t have a say in making.
In a way, Congress does a better job of making resolutions than the average person. Congressional resolutions are publicly revealed and held to the scrutiny of the media and voters — it’s like sharing your New Year’s resolution with friends or family. Those who do are often more successful in sticking to them. However, our lawmakers keep treating these future commitments like the average resolution: as well-intended guidelines, the completion of which is nice in theory but not absolutely necessary. In our own lives, we stick with the gym membership until it becomes inconvenient, then we drop it.
Unlike Congress, though, if in the course of the year we make no action toward the completion of our resolution, nothing happens. The hands of the scale stay where they were, and our credit card debts remain unpaid. Congress, conversely, sees the promises they made go into effect regardless. Whether or not small steps or preparations were made during the year — or years — leading to the action date, the policy kicks in, or, in this case, out.
It seems both individuals and Congress could benefit from seeing resolutions through the eyes of the other. If more people were held publicly accountable to their promises toward greater health, wealth or happiness, we’d all likely be better off. And, if Congress saw its laws as resolutions, which required gradual work toward completion, we’d less often find our country in the grip of panic as a new calendar or fiscal year arrives.
Lily Alberts is an economics major from Nashville, Tenn. She can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.