There was a study a few years back that sought to quantify the longevity and usefulness of New Year’s resolutions. In an experiment involving some 3,000 test subjects, British psychologist Richard Wiseman found that, at the end of the year, 88 percent of participants had failed to accomplish objectives they had set at the beginning. Similar recent research has yielded similarly disheartening results.
As such, some have suggested that we abandon our perennial practice of setting personal goals on the first of every January. It is a futile endeavor, they say, for in the end, such lofty ambitions are all but destined not to succeed.
But of course! Why do anything that carries the risk of failure? Indeed, what’s the point of getting out of bed in the morning and opening the front door?
Oh, that’s right. The whole “life” thing.
While the New Year’s resolution fad did not originate in the United States—comparable traditions can be found at least as far back as ancient Babylonia—there is a distinctly American character to its modern form and application, traceable directly to our founding documents.
First is the notion that begins the Preamble to the U.S. Constitution—the business about forming a “more perfect union.” These words, which President Obama has included in numerous speeches throughout his tenure, are the whole basis of Enlightenment-era self-government: The idea that while the United States will always be flawed in one way or another, we, the people, have made it our national credo always to aim for self-improvement, through both our laws and our deeds.
Viewing the dawning of a new year as a time of renewal—a “clean slate” from which to “start fresh,” among other well-worn clichés—is predicated on nothing so much as the principle that you can always be a better person tomorrow than you are today, and that you are duty-bound to give it the old college try.
As citizens of a country that is never completely satisfied with itself, we make New Year’s resolutions to tackle this conundrum on an individual level. To make all of America “more perfect,” we must begin with ourselves.
The second connection of today’s vows to the founding of the United States is through the Declaration of Independence, and that most peculiar claim of an “inalienable right” to not only life and liberty but also “the pursuit of happiness.”
Reviewing my own resolutions of recent years, I find that, for all that separates them from each other, they are connected by what you might call the happiness factor: Everything I have ever resolved to do on the first of the year was intended, directly or indirectly, to make me happier.
Writing makes me happy, and so I once resolved to write 50,000 words (on any subject) before the year was out.
Walking makes me happy, and so I once resolved to do so much of it that I would shed 20 pounds in the process.
Helping other people makes me happy, so this year I am looking to give blood more regularly than in the past.
And so forth.
I submit that viewing New Year’s resolutions through the prism of personal happiness is a particularly useful approach, not least because of the natural motivation one derives from it. After all, who doesn’t want to be happy?
As well, it could serve as a fortuitous exercise in examining the meaning of happiness in one’s own life, which is not always such a straightforward task. On a national level, we still haven’t figured out exactly what Thomas Jefferson meant when he included the pursuit of happiness as a central American value some 237 ago. How can we be sure what it means for ourselves?
Not that we have any cause to fret. Like the objective of making ourselves “more perfect” than we presently are, the art of securing one’s happiness is an ongoing process that (I’m afraid to say) does not end until we breathe our last breath.
That’s what life in America is all about: Always striving to be better. Forever grasping for more. Hiking the Kilimanjaro of human achievement, knowing all the while that we will never quite reach the summit.