2 February 2023

O New Year’s Resolutions, where art thou?

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By: Assoc. Prof. Dr. Nahrizul Adib Kadri

“This first of January, I will ………………”

According to research, the blank space will invariably be filled with one or combinations of these popular options: exercise more, eat healthier, lose weight, quit smoking, save money, learn a new skill, volunteer, and travel.

They (the options) tend to focus on self-improvement and making positive changes in one’s personal life. Because going from 31st December to 1st January felt like a big change; and why not accompanying that with a good change in one’s behaviour?

But also, according to a 2016 research: out of 41 percent Americans who made these resolutions, only 9 percent felt that they accomplished them by the end of the year. The author personally felt that we do not even have to do an actual research to come to this conclusion. In fact, there is this Bahasa Melayu meme currently doing the rounds that says: “Azam itu umpama sampan; selalunya ke laut.”

But why does it have to be this way? Isn’t change for the better should be welcomed and celebrated by everyone?

New Year’s resolutions have a long history dating back to ancient civilisations. The ancient Babylonians are credited with being the first to make New Year’s resolutions, over 4,000 years ago. They made promises to their gods at the start of each year that they would return borrowed objects and pay their debts. The Romans also made New Year’s resolutions, but they did so to honour Janus, the god of beginnings, transitions, and endings. In medieval Europe, the knights took the “peacock vow” at the end of the Christmas season each year to re-affirm their commitment to chivalry.

It is difficult to say who specifically popularized the practice of making New Year’s resolutions in modern times. One factor that may have contributed to the popularity of these resolutions is the increased focus on self-improvement and personal development in modern society. With the rise of the self-help movement and the proliferation of personal development resources, people may be more inclined to make resolutions as a way to take control of their lives and achieve their goals.

But changing habits is difficult, according to Dr. Azmawaty Mohamad Nor, Head, Department of Educational Psychology and Counselling, Faculty of Education, Universiti Malaya. She also adds: “Repeated behaviours can lead to the development of habits, which are reinforced when the environment remains consistent. Some habits, such as brushing teeth daily, can be beneficial for an individual.

On the other hand, habits that benefit communities, like recycling or choosing environmentally friendly modes of transportation, can also be shaped by the factors in the environment surrounding the behaviour. According to research by Dr. Verplanken, a social psychology professor at the University of Bath, it is possible to alter habits by altering the context or location in which the behaviour occurs, a phenomenon known as the ‘discontinuity effect’.”

Dr. Azmawaty highlighted that, according to Verplanken, the new year is not that big of a change that warranted the said ‘discontinuity effect’. Therefore, it is not so much about the nature of the selected habit(s), but also of the timing and the environment. No wonder completing New Year’s resolutions (at the same time and place every year) is such an overwhelming task!

Although tips and guidelines on sticking to your resolutions, like making them specific and achievable, and breaking them down into smaller goals, do help; but research have shown that you are better off changing your habits during a bigger change in your life.

Perhaps ‘pergi ke laut’ (going to the seas) is the right direction for your New Year’s resolutions; for you have created your very own ‘discontinuity effect’ in your life there, no?

The author is the Director of Corporate Communications Centre, Universiti Malaya. He may be reached at nahrizuladib@um.edu.my