The Real Reason Why New Years Resolutions Matter

This is a post about why new years resolutions matter. But it begins on a seemingly unrelated topic: death.

Death is not an easy subject for discussion. Given how much violence we encounter in movies, television, video games and other mass media, you’d think our society would be open to more frank conversations on death. And yet try to begin a serious conversation with someone about the fact that all of us will one day no longer be alive and you’ll quickly encounter resistance:

“Let’s discuss something a little more light hearted,” or maybe, “Geez, do you have to be so morbid?”

Perhaps the only times when discussing death is not frowned upon is at funerals and intensive care units, where its presence is so strong and near that it becomes impossible to ignore.

Why should this be so? After all, if you going were on a trip, wouldn’t you talk about the final stop with the other passengers? Our lives’ ultimate destination is death – it is the inevitability we all share.

Everyone you know – your friends, family, coworkers, customers will eventually die. Like candles, they will burn through their wick and their flames will be extinguished. Some will die by accidents, others by illness, most simply by old age. But eventually, all will be taken.

[This is going somewhere, I promise.]

The practice of pledging to change behavior during a new year is an old one. Historians believe civilizations as ancient as the Babylonians in 2000 BC began reforming their lives by returning borrowed goods and paying back debts. In Roman times, citizens would make promises of good conduct to the God of Janus (where January gets its namesake). Today, somewhere between 40%-50% of Americans say they will be making a new years resolution.

Why has the human race fixated so much on resolving to change their behavior at the start of a new year? This Saturday or 2 weeks from today seem like equally arbitrary yet viable dates to quit smoking or start keeping a budget or go to church more regularly.

Because a new year reminds us that death is coming.

Days pass, weeks pass, months pass and we can ignore them. Like eating little mini candies when you’re on a diet – we can pretend it doesn’t count. On a moment by moment basis, it feels like nothing is changing and everything will stay the same forever. But when a calendar year turns over, we are forced to face the irresistible passing of time.

I believe that the recognition that death is one step closer causes us to reflect on our lives more closely. (Incidentally, this is also why major birthday milestones sometimes trigger life changes). The new year reminds us that our time on earth is short and that we’ve been given a precious gift : life! We begin asking ourselves tough questions:

Are we happy with how our lives are progressing? Are we satisfied with our physical health? Our finances? Our social and emotional wellbeing?

In answering these questions, we start to uncover our dissatisfactions, our yearnings, our desire for progress. We recognize the gap between where we are and where we want to be, and often stirrings of change and self-improvement bubble to the surface.

This is why new years resolutions matter. They represent an opportunity to make the most out of our lives, a chance to try again and re-commit ourselves towards progress and growth.

So as 2012 begins, let us reflect on the joy of being alive and remind ourselves that our time on earth is limited. Let us visualize the life we wish to lead and determine the course we must take to reach it. Perhaps setting a new years resolution would give our journey the boost it needs. Perhaps not.

Either way, the new years matters. Your life matters. After all, this year, this day, this moment – is the beginning of the rest of our lives. So let’s go out and take it.

photo credit: adventurerob via photopin cc

PS – If you decide that a new years resolution IS what you need, check out my post on scientifically proven ways to set great new years resolutions.

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Jason Shen

Jason is a tech entrepreneur and talent expert. He is CEO of a performance hiring platform called Headlight, a Fast Company contributor, and an advocate for Asian American men. Follow him on Twitter at @jasonshen and subscribe to his private newsletter.

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