The Surprising Cultural History of New Year’s Resolutions

By Zuleyka Zevallos, PhD

In a fun rummage through vintage sociology, I found an interesting study by Isidor Thorner. Writing in 1951, he used a survey of Americans from various backgrounds to determine the relationship between New Year’s Resolutions (NYR) and Protestant values. Below I take a look at the major findings of Thorner’s study, exploring the historical and cultural variations of resolutions.

Protestant culture highly valued the idea of being in full control of one’s emotions. This meant being organised and denying oneself frivolous pursuits so as to be free to fulfil religious duty. Not adhering to these strict values brought about great personal shame.

Thorner argues that the New Year’s resolutions helped Protestants to manage their emotional baggage, and that over time, this practice lost its religious connotation and spread more widely.

Photo by Steve Davidson via Flickr.
Photo by Steve Davidson via Flickr.

English-Speaking Protestant Nations

Thorner finds that New Year’s resolutions were thought of as “tradition” amongst people from English-speaking countries where Protestant values were heavily influential. This includes Australia, England, Wales, Scotland, Northern Ireland and South Africa. Thorner argues that the New Year’s resolution was popularised as a social device to help allay Protestant remorse. By making promises to give up “vices” and resolving to be reformed in character, people could regain some religious standing following their accumulated yearly transgressions.

Thorner notes that the biggest New Year’s Resolutions in 1947 are about improving one’s life, health and spirituality. I note that many of these resolutions are still popular today in Western countries. I see that these resolutions had three general themes:

  • to be a better person: be more understanding, control one’s temper, live a better life);
  • to take better care of one’s health: stop smoking/ drinking; lose (or interestingly to gain) weight; and
  • to improve one’s home life: save money; be more engaged with family.

A couple of the other resolutions may be less prevalent today in secular contexts, such as promising to go to church more often.

Non-English Speaking Nations

Sparkle Sweden
Photo: Kim Ahlström via Flickr, CC

The study finds that people from 22 other countries did not recognise the idea of making personal New Year’s resolutions. This includes Latin American, Scandinavian, Asian and Eastern European countries.

Parts of Canada, The Republic of Ireland, Norway, Sweden, and Switzerland were exceptions. These people think that New Year’s resolutions are not native to their national traditions, but are prevalent amongst sub-groups, such as English-speaking Canadians, and Swedish people who think that resolutions are made by some people who imported the idea from Anglo-Saxon culture.

There is historical evidence for the latter claim. Thorner notes that the idea of “resolutions” entered the lexicon of the Swedish Methodist church through the influence of Methodist founder John Wesley. Wesley would write about being impressed with meeting men who sought “to make resolutions aimed at his recognised weaknesses.”

Diffusion & Change Over Time

New Year's Eve Party
Photo: Peter Hardy via Flickr, CC

Thorner writes that, although most societies have “resolved to reform themselves in one way or another,” Protestant values of “life-long emotional discipline as well as an attempt to live up to rigorous standards” have influenced the spread of New Years Resolutions amongst Protestant nations. From there, cultural diffusion of this tradition spread out to other nations. Over time, as Protestant cultures became more secular, this tradition took on a more jovial tone, and eventually lost its religious connection.

This study is sociologically intriguing because it establishes the historical and cultural institutions that influenced the spread of what is today seen as a light-hearted bit of fun. Thorner also traces the New Year’s resolution as a normative social practice once used to encourage people to be better Christians.

Over to You

Do people have New Year’s resolutions in your country? Do you make resolutions yourself? Are these influenced by your sociology in some way? Let us know in the comments!

Sociology of New Year's.

Learn More

Read the study on the journal Social Forces (paid access).


[Above image description] Sociology of New Year’s Resolutions: “a determination to control what are felt to be weaknesses of character, morally reprehensible surrenders to impulses which an accepted 
standard disapproves.” – Isidor Thorner.

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