Leiden Anthropology Blog

May you lose weight, stop drinking, and pay off your debts!

May you lose weight, stop drinking, and pay off your debts! By Dipankan001

Or should I say - Happy New Year!? New Year’s greetings for those celebrating it and some musings about the genre of New Year’s resolutions: what do they tell us about the future and the present?

The Aspirational Self

The most popular New Year’s resolutions are unlikely to take many people by surprise. Your aspirational, better self spends quality time with family, exercises regularly, learns new languages, has smoked only to quit, never exceeds the recommended half glass of wine with a healthy dinner, and has a healthy savings account to match.

The arrival of the New Year, marking the end of one cycle and the beginning of another, is the perfect rite of renewal, where one can imagine a break with the past and a fresh start. Starting anew. For the better. Except, of course, that we can never really start from scratch.

The lazy underachiever

Blue Monday, notoriously the most depressing day of the year, falls roughly in the middle of January - right at the time when many New Year’s resolutions start to crumble. That oh-so-glorious new year turns out to be just yet another year, and the resolutions that were to lead towards the better self slowly fade into the background of everyday concessions and compromises (or to put in another way - you “embrace the lazy underachiever you really are").   

Imagining the Future and the Present

Nevertheless, imagining how life could be remade is exciting. From Socrates and Plato, to the whole genre of utopia writing that emerged in 16th- and 17th-century Europe, right up to phenomena such as the current reality tv show Utopia.tv, human beings seem to have a deep-seated fascination with imagining futures and exploring alternatives. Such explorations are revealing not only in what they show, but also in what lies behind them.

It seems to me that, just as Thomas More’s Utopia can be read as a critique of medieval Europe, New Year’s resolutions can be read as a list of normative priorities in  society. Even if the resolutions are seemingly individual, they arise from complex social, cultural, economic and political pressures. It would be fascinating to see a longitudinal study of changing New Year’s resolutions: I suspect that ‘spending less time on social networks’ or ‘taking better pictures’ are rather peculiar resolutions, which speak to very contemporary issues faced by particular groups in society.

Imagining Futures and the Future

Explorations of various versions of the future are revealing not only with regard to the present they relate to, but also with regard to the nature of the future as a category, and the changing relationships we have with it. For example, it has been argued that during the Middle Ages in Europe, with a world view based on Christian teachings, the future was largely understood as predestined and determined by God: Man had very little say in the matter. With the Enlightenment, our relationship to the future changed dramatically - the future became open for man to explore and change. Belief in the notion of progress meant that in the future everything was possible, and it all depended on humankind itself. Isn’t it interesting that the most widespread New Year’s resolutions are geared towards personal improvement? 

May the future be the same and better!

Anthropologist Sandra Wallman, writing about the human relationship with the future, notes that most people seem to want to live better and to live the same as before. This seemingly contradictory aspiration combines a desire for positive change and for reassuring continuity. And that is what I wish for you and for myself as we enter the new 2014!

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