Mark Woods: The long and chivalrous history of New Year resolutions

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The New Year resolution has something of the marketeer about it. By which I mean it wouldn’t be the biggest surprise in the world if you discovered that the whole thing was dreamed up in a New York advertising agency in 1958. But making personal promises at the start of the year goes back a good deal longer than that – thousands of years longer, in fact. Those oft mentioned but never really bothered about lot, the ancient Babylonians, were known to swear to their God’s they’d do all sorts of good and worthwhile things at the start of each year and the Romans did similar by telling Janus, after whom January is named, that no end of promises were in the post.

Even the dark ages brought some new year illumination with knights taking the peacock vow at the end of the festive season to make clear their absolute devotion to chivalry. Okay, so historical precedence is assured. We are now free to use regret as a launch pad for our 12 monthly intentions.

Kind of. Psychologists tell us that we’re learning all the time and if we aren’t careful we will slow that learning process down by getting stuck, waist deep, in the idea of regret. Rather, they say, we should be at peace with the past and remember that each moment is a new choice, a new beginning. And then there are the observations of Bronnie Ware, a palliative care nurse who noticed a remarkable synergy in what her dying patients were wishing they had or hadn’t done. In her book The Top Five Regrets of the Dying she listed the ‘if only I had a New Year’ resolutions of the very soon to be not with us as:

1. I wish I’d had the courage to live a life true to myself, not the life others expected of me.

2. I wish I hadn’t worked so hard.

3. I wish I’d had the courage to express my feelings.

4. I wish I had stayed in touch with my friends.

5. I wish that I had let myself be happier.

All of which make for very poignant reading as we make our vow for the next 12 months.

Whatever you decide to do, have a very happy new year.

Twitter @mark_r_woods01