The Ubiquitous Celebration of New Year's Day. It's Really About Surviving
I'm an Instructor at Harvard, a consultant in risk perception and risk communication, author of How Risky Is it, Really? Why Our Fears Don't Always Match the Facts, and principal co-author of RISK, A Practical Guide for Deciding What's Really Safe and What's Really Dangerous in the World Around You. I run a program called Improving Media Coverage of Risk. I was the Director of Risk Communication at the Harvard Center for Risk Analysis, part of the Harvard School of Public Health, for 4 years, prior to which I was a TV reporter, specializing in environmental issues, for a local station in Boston for 22 years.
At one second past midnight on Tuesday, the day will change to Wednesday, a normally unremarkable transition that happens every day, with no significance. But somehow this change, which will end one year and begin the next, is different. This unique tick of the clock has always prompted us both to celebrate, and to step outside the day-to-day living we’re always so busy with, and reflect; to look back, take stock, to assess how we did, and resolve to do better going forward. Save perhaps for our birthdays, there is no other moment that gets this sort of special treatment.
Why? Why does the New Year carry such special symbolism? And why is the celebration of the New Year so common around the world, as it has been for at least as long as there have been calendars? Behavior that ubiquitous must surely be tied to something intrinsic in the human animal, something profoundly meaningful and important given all the energy and resources we put into both the celebration and our efforts to make good on our resolutions (even though we mostly fail to keep them…more on that in a minute.). As common as the celebration of New Year’s day is, it may be that the symbolism we attach to this one moment is rooted in one of the most powerful motivations of all, the motivation to survive.
The celebration part is obvious. As we do on our birthdays, New Year’s day provides us the chance to celebrate having made it through another 365 days, the annual unit of time by which we keep chronological score of our lives. Phew! Another year, and here we still are! Time our raise our glasses and toast “To Survival!” (The flip side of this are the year-end obituary summaries of those who didn’t make it, reassuring those of us who did.)
But what about those resolutions? Well, aren’t they about the same thing…about living healthier, better, longer? New Year’s resolutions are examples of the universal human desire to have some control over what lies ahead, because the future is unsettlingly unknowable. Not knowing what’s to come means we don’t know what we need to know to keep ourselves safe. To counter that worrisome powerlessness, we do things to take control. We resolve to diet and exercise. We resolve to quit smoking. We resolve to start saving. It doesn’t even matter whether we hold our resolve and make good on these promises. Committing to them, at least for a moment, gives us a feeling of more control over the uncertain days to come.
(A 2007 study by British psychologist Richard Wiseman found that for many of us, what U2 sang is true; “nothing changes on New Years Day”. 88% of 3,000 people followed for a year failed to achieve the goals of their resolutions, although 52% were confident they would when they made them. Here’s a summary of that research, which includes some suggestions for how to make good on yours.)
Interestingly, New Years resolutions also commonly include things like treating people better, making new friends, and paying off debts. The Babylonians would return borrowed objects. Jews seek, and offer, forgiveness. The Scots go ‘first footing’, visiting neighbors to wish them well. How does all this social ‘resolving’ connect to survival? Simple. We are social animals. We have evolved to depend on others, literally, for our health and safety. Treating people well is a good way to be treated well. “Do unto others as you would have them do unto you” is a great survival strategy.
And many people resolve to pray more. That one makes sense in terms of survival too. Pray more and THE omnipotent force is more likely to keep you safe. Jews pray at Yom Kippur, at the start of their new year, to be inscribed in the Book of Life for one more year. And though death is inescapable, throughout history humans everywhere have dealt with the fear of death by participating in religions that promise happy endings. Pray more, and death is less scary.
There are hundreds of good luck rituals woven among New Years celebrations, also practiced in the name of exercising a little control over Fate. The Dutch, to whom the circle is a symbol of success, eat donuts. Greeks bake special Vassilopitta cake with a coin inside, bestowing good luck in the coming year on whoever finds it in his or her slice. The fireworks on New Years eve started in China millenia ago as a way to chase off evil spirits. The Japanese hold New Year’s Bonenkai or "forget-the-year parties" to bid farewell to the problems and concerns of the past year and prepare for a better new one. Disagreements and misunderstandings between people are supposed to be resolved. Grudges are supposed to be set aside. Houses are scrubbed to sweep out the bad vibes and make room for better ones, a New Year’s ritual for many cultures around the world.
It’s fascinating, really, to see how common so much of this is. Fireworks. Good luck rituals. Resolutions to give us the pretense of control over the future. Everywhere, New Years is a moment to consider our weaknesses and how we might reduce the vulnerabilities they pose, and to do something about the scary powerlessness that comes from thinking about the unsettling unknown of what lies ahead. And, as common as these shared behaviors are across both history and culture, it’s fascinating to realize that the special ways that people note this unique passage of one day into the next are probably all manifestations of the human animal’s fundamental imperative for survival.
So…how do you reassure yourself against the scariest thing the future holds, the only sure thing that lies ahead, the inescapable reality that you will someday die? Pass the donuts or the Vassilopitta or the grapes, light the fireworks, and raise a glass to toast “Happy New Year!” "To SURVIVAL!"
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