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The science behind New Year's Resolutions... and why we so often fail to keep them

Intuitively, a new beginning seems to increase people’s beliefs that they can do better.

As we emerged from our New Year’s Eve celebrations with pounding heads and a slight sense of loathing for our late-2017 selves, many of us will have jumped at an excuse for some annual self-improvement. Whether it’s quitting smoking or exercising more, once a year we’re seemingly willing to overlook mounting evidence that less than 50 per cent of people will have kept to their resolutions in six months.

In 2013, researchers Dai, Milkman and Riis at University of Pennsylvania found that “temporal landmarks increase the subjective distance between a person’s current self and past self”. Essentially, the sense of psychological disassociation brought on by a new year makes it easier to separate perceptions of past failure and imperfection from current aspirations – explaining why so many of us use the changing of the calendars as an excuse to set lofty goals.

Not only did they discover an increase in those taking up diets and gym memberships after the holiday season’s end, but also at the onset of a new month, or even in the days surrounding a birthday. Intuitively, a new beginning seems to increase people’s beliefs that they can do better. Yet despite the widespread practice of making New Year Resolutions, there remains relatively little research into whether there’s actually an optimal time to begin attempts to better ourselves, or even whether the concept is helpful at all.

“The beginning of the New Year is an important time symbolically – people reflect on their values, their desires, and what they want to change,” says Dr.Susan Michie, the head of the UCL Centre for Behaviour Change. “But, when people get to a threshold, people aren’t very satisfied, but then it could be a chance event or a conversation, something kind of tips you over, into thinking right, I’m now going to take this on.”

Historians believe that the practice of New Year resolutions originated from the Babylonian Kingdom, where the start of the harvest season was marked by Akitu, a 12-day festival in which communities would fast and pray to their gods for better fortunes in the year ahead. Then in 46 B.C., Roman emperor Julius Caesar decided to honour the two-faced god Janus by ruling that the New Year began on 1 January, when he encouraged his subjects to reflect on their transgressions and commit to improvement for the following year.

Fast-forward to 1740, and John Wesley, the father of Methodism, encouraged the same during his midnight New Year’s Eve services. Since then, the practice has spread all over the world, becoming as much of a tradition as the annual countdown to midnight.

While the principle remains the same, ambitions have undoubtedly changed significantly over the past 3,000 years. Looking forward to 2018, 12 per cent of Americans polled by The Marist Opinion Institue reported their main resolution was simply “being a better person” – closely followed by weight loss, ditching cigarettesand eating healthier.

These changes fit quite neatly into concepts like self-help and wellness, which have seemingly accelerated in popularity thanks to self-improvement manuals with catchy titles, like The Paleo Solution or The Kind Diet. With so many looking to focus on clean eating, curbing addictive behaviours and exercise; it’s no surprise that a whole industry of motivational apps and guides has sprung up to keep everybody on track.

Of course, self-help books and faux-inspirational social media posts can’t exactly counteract human nature. Richard Wiseman, a psychologist at the University of Hertfordshire, found that just 12 per cent of people can say they've stuck to their New Year’s Resolutions one year on.  

“There are different influences in terms of what makes somebody make a resolution and what makes it stick. People may make resolutions because of external triggers, or social pressure from what everybody is doing at that time,” adds Dr Michie.

She recommends acting like a behavioural scientist in order to make resolutions stick. “A lot of people think it's easy, it's just about willpower. But if it’s not observable or measurable, can you really tell if there’s a change? People have to construct their own behavioural experiments to see whether their plan has worked or not.

“You have to start, then find ways to make work on your resolution in the least effortful and least disruptive to your daily routine, and build in some kind of reward. If it doesn’t work, you have to think about why it hasn’t succeeded.” 

Despite this simple advice, making and sticking to resolutions can often seem doomed to failure. Even the first incidence of the term “new year’s resolutions” from the anonymous author of a newspaper column titled ‘Friday Lecture’ in 1813, reveals that humanity might just be change-averse.

“There are multitudes of people...who will sin all the month of December, with a serious determination of beginning the new year with new resolutions and new behaviour, and with the full belief that they shall thus expiate and wipe away all their former faults.”

Some things might never change. 

Photo: mdl70 via Flickr
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Childhood mythology is being revamped by digital monsters like Slenderman

The stories the younger generation tell one another are just as rich, and as terrifying.

“I am the spirit of dark and lonely water, ready to trap the unwary, the show-off, the fool...”

The eldritch tones of Donald Pleasance will breathe a chilly memory along the vertebrae of those of a certain age. That 1973 public information broadcast about water safety lingers long in the memory. But why? There was something about the hooded figure depicted beside the river where children cavorted that just resonated. A shadow, a memory, a whisper. It was as if we'd almost heard it before. It wasn't just a warning. It was a story.

Before Donald Pleasance kept Britain's children from its treacherous riverbanks, we had tales of ubiquitous river-hags. Two good examples are Peg Powler, who haunts the banks of the Tees, and Jenny Green Teeth, who stalks Shropshire's waterways.  Both of these terrifying water spirits live to drag youngsters to a watery lair. These monsters pan the world, from the native Penobscot people of Maine, with their child-luring swamp-woman Skwaktemus, to the Inuit's Qalupalik, a green-skinned water witch that reaches up from below the ice to snatch wayward and disobedient children.

These stories are geographically distant but carry essentially the same message: “Stay away from the water”. Predatory creatures embody a very real fear. The unimaginable nightmare of our children in real peril is blunted by the presence of a monster.

Children need stories as much as adults do; stories make sense of reality when reality is hard to understand. Stories are told to be re-told, to be embellished, to raise heroes and to make monsters.

For people of the Dark and Lonely Water generation, including me, it's easy to assume that today's kids have lost the art of storytelling. We say social media has diffused, has numbed, has snuffed the flame of imagination. Yet perhaps it hasn't. Perhaps we just got old. On the contrary, the stories the younger generation tell each other are just as rich. Monsters are still being made. This world of ours is still being understood.

There is real danger out there. There are real monsters. But now they come in new forms, they lurk in new lairs.

Today, the internet is the new hunting ground of the monster. Grooming, trolling, cat-fishing and scamming have become the MOs of the vile in our society and, as if in direct response, legends and myths have sprung from the same place.

Creepypasta, 4Chan and /nosleep are breeding colonies of legend. Forums and social media have taken the place of the skipping-rope chants and the childhood whispers. Young people still know Bloody Mary, yet Black-Eyed Kids and the Goatman have usurped her from her throne. Nefarious rituals and games like Hooded Man or Elevator to Another World have been born of the internet age, submitted as stories and experiences. Like the Spirit of Dark and Lonely Water in the 70s, they have touched a common nerve.

The most iconic of these net-dredged horrors is Slenderman: born of a paranormal Photoshop competition, his legend has transmogrified into an internet Tulpa, the power of which played a significant part in the decision of 12-year-olds Anissa Weier and Morgan Geyser to stab their friend Bella Leutner 19 times. He is strengthened with every share, every fan image, every account of his being. It is no wonder that he has become flesh in the hearts and minds of those who need him, who want to escape into his world.

The readers of the forums that bear these eldritch fruits know the content isn't real. Yet disbelief is intentionally suspended. As it says on the /nosleep board guidelines “Everything is true here, even if it's not. Don't be the jerk in the movie theater [sp] hee-hawing because monkeys don't fly.”  It's disrespectful to negate the skill or the talent that it takes to write a story or make an image on Photoshop. This leaves space for storytelling. We need stories.

These stories stir something inside us, lend a bellow to the flames of our imagination. Images, anecdotes and instructions - they are monsters we have the power to control. Online, we can pass on the whispers, we have the ability to interact with the shadows. Online we can be the purveyors of this mythology. We can tell each other stories. We can control. If we make a monster, it is ours. Most importantly, we can escape from reality and immerse ourselves in our monsters.

Not just monsters lurk online, there are games and rituals, rich in their own mythology. The illicit Ouija board in the parks and graveyards of my own childhood are dwarfed by the trans-cultural crucible of today's games. With the ingenuity of Koji Suzuki's cursed video in Ring, far eastern influence and technology are pervasive throughout. Japan can boast the ghost-summoning Satoru-kun, and the White Kimono game. Both are alleged to summon spirits, Satoru-kun specifically with a mobile phone. There are many more of these games sprouting up from all over the rest of the world eg.- Mexico's ' El Juego Del Libro Rojo' (Red Book game) and Portugal's Ritual da Televisão (Television ritual) and nearly all carry grave warnings.

These nebulous games, like the internet's monsters carry their own stories. Peruse Reddit and you'll find accounts and speculation from those who claim to have played and been changed or had their lives altered by what they've done. The comments below the hundreds of accounts begging for advice are a mix of sincerity and concern.

“Dude, luck only lasts so long, and even longer less when you tempt things you know nothing of.”

“OP, you messed up big time. You're always supposed to follow the rules of the game as completely as you can!”

“You idiot! Ghost games are not for play! Especially japanese ones, they are dangerous”

“Get some sage. Burn the sage, and wave it into every corner of every room in the house... I would recommend putting salt across doorways and window sills, anything that would be an 'entry' into the house, but it sounds like you may have summoned it inside the house”

Everything is true here even if it's not.

But how can we know for sure? Do we really know that the user didn't summon something terrible from the void they opened with one of these games?

That's what makes them so compelling. That's what makes Slenderman, Smile Dog and Jeff the Killer so iconic. Like that friend of your mate's brother who went mad after he did an Ouija board down the park, we are still whispering, we are still embellishing and interacting.

The internet is open, unchartered landscape, there are no rules of the real world in which to weave mythology and the quest is to be the creator of something that wriggles from our grasp and is embraced, formed and made flesh by a collective consciousness. Are we in some way thankful for these creatures that bring us together over oceans and time zones?

Phones and tablets in the hands of our children are frightening to us: they are the unknown, the window into an abyss. Yet from that abyss, we are like our ancestors, toasting heraldry and horror, and making new myths.

Hydra by Matt Wesolowski, published by Orenda Books is out now.