The meaning of most holidays is clear: Valentine’s Day celebrates romance; July Fourth, independence; Thanksgiving, productivity; Christmas, good will toward men. The meaning of New Year’s Day–the world’s most celebrated holiday–is not so clear. On this day, many people remember last year’s achievements and failures and look forward to the promise of a new year, of a new beginning. But this celebration and reflection is the result of more than an accident of the calendar. New Year’s has a deeper significance. What is it?
On New Year’s Day, when the singing, fireworks and champagne toasts are over, many of us become more serious about life. We take stock and plan new courses of action to better our lives. This is best seen in one of the most popular customs and the key to the meaning of New Year’s: making resolutions.
On average each American makes 1.8 New Year’s resolutions. When the rest of the world is taken into account, the number of people making resolutions skyrockets to hundreds of millions. From New York to Paris to Sydney, interesting similarities arise as shown in two very common resolutions: people wanting to be more attractive by losing weight, and to be healthier by exercising more and smoking less. They want to do things better, become better people.
New Year’s Day is the most active-minded holiday, because it is the one where people evaluate their lives and plan and resolve to take action. One dramatic example of taking resolutions seriously is the old European custom of: “What one does on this day one will do for the rest of the year.” What unites this custom and the more common type of resolutions is that on the first day of the year people take their values more seriously.
Values are not only physical and external. They also can be psychological. Many New Year’s resolutions reveal that people want to better themselves by improving psychologically. For example, look at your own resolutions over the years. Haven’t they included such vows as: be more patient with your children, improve your self-esteem, be more emotionally open with your wife? Such resolutions express the moral ambitiousness of a person wanting to improve his self and life.
What then is the philosophic meaning of New Year’s resolutions? Every resolution you make on this day implies that you are in control of your self, that you are not a victim fated by circumstance, controlled by stars, owned by luck, but that you are an individual who can make choices to change your life. You can learn statistics, ask for that promotion, fight your shyness, search for that marriage partner. Your life is in your own hands.
But what is the purpose of making such goals and resolutions? Why bother? Making New Year’s resolutions (and doing so even after failing last year’s) stresses that people want to be happy. On New Year’s Day many people accept, often more implicitly than explicitly, that happiness comes from the achievement of values. That is why you resolve to be healthier, more ambitious, more confident. You want to enjoy that sense of purpose, accomplishment and pleasure that one feels when achieving values. It is happiness that is the motor and purpose of one’s life. It is New Year’s, more than any other day, that makes the attainment of happiness more real and possible. This is the meaning of New Year’s Day and why it is so psychologically important and significant to people throughout the world.
If people were to apply the value-achievement meaning of New Year’s Day explicitly and consistently 365 days each year, they would be happier.
So every day, fill your champagne glass of life to the brim with values–and drink deep to your life and the joy that it can and should be.
Happy New Year. Happy life.
Scott McConnell, Capitalism Magazine