The myth of the New Year “fresh start”

December 28th, 2010 § 9 comments

There isn’t anything magical to me about 12:00 A.M. on Saturday when 2011 arrives.

Sure, you may have made some resolutions or more informally said to yourself that “things will be different in the new year” but chances are, they probably won’t.

The concept of liminal time is one I learned in graduate school when I took many graduate classes with Eviatar Zerubavel. Professor and author of many books in cognitive sociology, Zerubavel used The Fine Line: Making Distinctions in Everyday Life to explore the ways in which we create mental boundaries where no clear ones exist for the purpose of keeping life ordered. That is, we artifically make distinctions where they may not exist, or their empirical boundaries are far fuzzier. For example, while “life” and “death” may seem discrete, polar opposites, public debates over when does life begin? (conception, birth) and what constitutes the end of life? (brain death) are, of course, far more controversial. At first glance the question Is it alive or dead? seems deceptively simple.

And so while “clean breaks” and “fresh starts” for the new year sound lovely, in essence there is no reason to believe that just because the numbers 2011 are attached to something will necessarily mean a life different than 2010. While taxes and health insurance may get reset on January 1st, the financial situations and health statuses that carry over from December 31 are unlikely to be very different once the metaphorical calendar page has been turned.

Years ago, of course, the calendar was real, and so was the page. We purchased new datebooks and the clear, fresh pages symbolized the new start we would have. While some maintain this tradition, others (like me) have abandoned the tangible book-style calendar for the electronic one. The same swipe which turns us from December 30 to 31 takes us from 2010 to 2011. The joy of the trip to the stationery store to pick a new datebook is gone for me. My new year begins without effort.

We like to think a new year will bring new things. We hope it will mean the end of unpleasant situations in our life. We often make resolutions to help ensure that old habits will not be repeated. But there’s a reason gym attendance falls off sharply in February and March as enthusiasm wanes and old habits resume.

This isn’t to say that changes can’t be made. This news should not be considered depressing. On the contrary, the message is to say that they can be made any day, at any time. Perhaps the new year is easier to designate as the “fresh start.” But in the realm of cognitive sociology, there is no reason to expect that 12:00 on January 1st, 2011 will be any different than 11:59 on December 31, 2010.

So use the new year as a starting point if you must, but keep in mind that any day of the year will do. It’s easy to say 2011 will be better or different. But in my mind it’s just another day, dealing with the same things as any other. And thinking it’s going to be different or better only serves to set myself up for disappointment if it’s not.

How about you: In your experience is thinking about the new year as new helpful? Do you make resolutions? Do you stick with them? Do you prefer to make resolutions and fail rather than not make them at all?


§ 9 Responses to The myth of the New Year “fresh start”"

  • Mary Helen says:

    Usually I don’t look at the new year as a fresh start. In past years I have made resolutions — other years I didn’t. Honestly, and I don’t know if this is a new development or not, I can make all the resolutions I want, but I’ll forget what they were before January ends.

    This year is a bit different. I still don’t think anything magical will happen Friday night, but I sure hope that 2011 brings less drama to my household. I wish for health and happiness for myself, my family and all my friends. I realize I have little control over that, but I’m going to do the best I can to help achieve it.

    • You know I’m not a big believer in the difference of 2011 over 2010… but in your case I am going to make an exception 🙂 I will be thinking of your family and precious Sydney tomorrow… and hoping for better days ahead for all of you.

  • Lance says:

    While I like your blog and enjoyed reading your honest post, I disagree.

    Here’s what I wrote yesterday:

    You may have a “fresh start” and begin “anew”, you can use January 1st or 14th or 27th or heck, even March 19th, to start improvements to make yourself a better person. I make resolutions every year. I achieved, six of seven in 2010. I think goals, whether, physical, mental, spiritual, artistic or practical are important to being your best. I sound like one of those infomercial people, and I apologize. I’m not good at cynicism. I’m better at idealism. So that’s I’ll roll in 2011.

    Happy New Year

    Lance aka @TLanceB

  • casoly says:

    This is a great point Lisa. I think for many the days are symbolic – we need things to begin and end, otherwise we can’t maybe see the need to assess, a time to reflect and a time to make changes. I personally try not to do this during the new year, but on my birthday – to me that’s my day of renewal and I generally get all introspective-y at that time of the year. But you’re right, sometimes it’s an event or an experience that causes people to reflect, to re-consider things, whatever the time. (ps – I still buy a yearly paper planner, couldn’t live without it.).

  • Sarah says:

    As always, I enjoyed reading your perspective. To me, everyday, even every moment is an opportunity to expand and grow (hopefully not in the physical sense 🙂 and Jan 1, 2011 is just another opportunity for me but with a bit more intention.

    I enjoy the process of taking the time to reflect on the prior year and to try to come up with “resolutions” for change (whether I follow thru or not is another questions). I guess it would not occur to me to examine the shift from 2010 to 2011 in that way.

    Thanks for your post! Sarah

  • j says:

    Of course you’re right – intellectually. I guess I look at it like this. That feeling of sudden sweet, breathtaking love can be explained through science, the firing of neurons, biological chemical shifts and balances that are not really magic at all. There is no (in my opinion) such thing as a universe that talks to me, or better yet – as I often say – dances with me. My dogs stay when I pet them not because they love me but because of the endorphin type release that happens in their brains…

    The beauty and significance that we attach to things, like new years (or, as you rightly point out, new beginnings no matter when they occur) are maybe only based on what goes on in our hearts. (Which, of course, is false too. The functions of our hearts is purely biological.)

    I’m all for the poetry, though. The magic we create simply because we decide it’s so.

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