A Brief History of New Year’s Resolutions: Where They Began & Why They Fail

January 09, 2017

By Amanda Zantal-Wiener

2017 Marketing Strategy

Ah, late December — I remember it well. It was a time for reflection, sugar, and salt. For many, it was also a time to look ahead to the looming new year, and think about where we could improve. We resolved to do things like lose weight, find love, and save money.

But once the new year has come and gone, sadly, only 8% of us successfully accomplished what we set out to do.

It wasn’t always like that. There’s actually a very long, compelling history behind how we started making resolutions in the first place, and it looked a lot different at first. And as these resolutions evolved, our motivation to maintain them also shifted, eventually resulting in the aforementioned dismal success rate. Download our free planning template to establish concrete and achievable  marketing goals.

So, how did we get here? And why is it just so darn tricky to stick to our resolutions? Let’s step back in time and explore just how this tradition works.

A Brief History of New Year’s Resolutions

Where They Began

According to the History Channel, New Year’s resolutions date back roughly 4,000 years, to when the Babylonians — a population living in what was then Mesopotamia — commemorated the new year in March, when the season’s crops were planted. The celebration consisted of a 12-day festival called Akitu, when either a new king was crowned, or loyalty to the existing monarchy was renewed.

But it was also a time for the Babylonians to make certain promises — things like settling debts and returning anything that wasn’t theirs to its proper owner. Maintaining these resolutions, they believed, came with karmic retribution, in that kept promises would be rewarded with good fortune in the following year.

The Romans are said to be the first to create the concept of January 1 and designate it the first day of the year, beginning around 46 B.C. The name of the month is rooted in Janus, a god of particular importance to the Romans, due to his two-faced nature. It was believed that Janus could use his two faces to both look back on the outgoing year, and forward to the next one. Similar to the Babylonians, Romans made vows of good deeds to Janus before the new year arrived.

Where They Are Now

Each December, the Marist Institute for Public Opinion measures the most popular resolutions for the coming year. Starting with the top resolutions for 2017, we worked backwards to see how these resolutions have evolved — or not — over the past five years.


We’ve certainly seen a shift in resolutions since the Babylonian and ancient Roman era — going from good-doing to mostly self-improvement. However, 2017 is seeing a bit of a shift back in that direction, with more looking to “be a better person” this year.

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