Philosophy in New Year’s Resolutions

New Year’s resolutions are one of the strangest rituals observed by the people of the West: highly individualistic commitments to make changes in one’s personal lifestyle are collectively made at the same point in time, even though there is no apparent benefit of coordinating the timing of such vows with others – no mechanism stipulates that people will help each other out in achieving their resolutions. On the contrary, even amongst those making resolutions, the belief is wide-spread that the self-set goals won’t be accomplished anyways. Perhaps it is this last element of sisyphusian absurdity that elevates the ritual of New Year’s resolutions to a poetic annual contemplation about the tragedy of the human condition.

U2 play with this idea in their line “Nothing Changes – On New Year’s Day”:

U2 – New Years Day (1983):

In China, people traditionally used to wish each other happiness, longevity and wealth on their New Year’s Eve aka Spring Festival. However, more recently, the majority of Chinese blessings have been cropped down to include only the mutual wishing of “wealth”, accompanied by a gift of money in red envelopes. This novel ritual in a way invites to annually contemplate about the “The Limits to Growth”, a concept once made famous by the Club of Rome. (Alternatively, U2’s New Year Day song offers itself as basis for contemplation as it also contains the unpleasing lines “And so we are told this is the golden age/And gold is the reason for the wars we wage”)

In India, people light lamps and set them afloat on waterbeds in order to celebrate the triumph of good over evil, or, more philosphical, the triumph of existence over non-existence. And thereby to annually contemplate about the most unsettling question of humanity (or, according to Martin Heidegger and Raymond Smullyan, the “most fundamental issue of philosophy”): Why is there something instead of nothing? (Btw, this blog emphasizes a shortcut answer: “Well, why not?” quoted from the “Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy”)

In contrast to China, India, and many other cultures, Western society is unusual in its focus on proposing to its Members to pledge self-betterment without a cause (at least no specific cause) every New Year. Yet, this ritual highlights perhaps more than any other ritual the individual attitude – prescribed by society – that is necessary, to enable the West to produce enough stuff scheduled for consumption on the occassion of one of its other central annual rituals: the giving of purchased gifts at Christmas. “Fitter, happier, more productive” are suggestions taken up by Radiohead that outline remarkably well the spirit of New Year’s resolutions:

Radiohead – Fitter, Happier (1997):

Maybe they were reading too many Club of Rome reports or listening to too much U2, or – most likely – they were just employing too much common sense, when the German band “Wir sind Helden” (“We are Heroes”) penned their masterpiece “Müssen nur Wollen” (“[You/We] Only have to want [it]”). In that song they write the magnificent lines and only appropriate response to New Year’s resolutions and the societal attitude, on which they are based: “Wenn ich könnte, wie ich wollte, würd’ ich gar nichts wollen – Ich weiss aber, dass alle etwas wollen sollen.” – “If I was able to do what I wanted to, then I wouldn’t want anything – But I know that everybody is supposed to want something!”

Wir sind Helden – Müssen nur wollen (2003):

In their refrain, Wir sind Helden correctly predict, what happens, when we in fact succeed in achieving our New Year’s resolutions:
“Wir können alles schaffen, genau wie die tollen – dressierten Affen!” – “We can achieve everything, just like those awesome – trained monkeys!”

Have a philosophical week,


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