The Blog

Is It Really Possible To Have A Happy New Year?

Throughout 2007, the psychologist Richard Wiseman tracked over three-thousand people attempting to achieve a wide range of resolutions. Come December 31st, 88% of them had failed; and there is a wealth of juicy scientific and psychological nuggets to explain why.

"It's the most wonderful time of the year," sang Andy Williams. Except that it isn't.

As you read this, calls to the UK's leading charity for depression, Depression Alliance, are increasing by 40%, and Seasonal Affective Disorder has proceeded to unleash its bleak consequence upon 7% of people in Scotland where, every day, two people decide to end it all. Faced with such stark figures as these, it would perhaps be imprudent if not impertinent to insist that we truly have it so bad, so we feel compelled to metamorphose our despairs into an upbeat endeavour to better ourselves. Thus, we have arrived once again at that time of year where we attempt to resolve our failures, deficiencies and inadequacies and compile our New Year's resolutions.

Who can resist shaking the Etch-a-Sketch of life and starting afresh? From the self-assured egotist to the confidence-crippled faultfinder, it would appear that everyone harbours a burning desire to reform. After all, every programme on television seems to be reviewing the year that was, why aren't you?

And whose Facebook and Twitter feeds have not been inundated with brazenly constructive cynicism? "2014 has been shite," people whine, "things are going to be different in 2015." Yet, far from reflecting on some wounding, distressing event, they are simply lamenting the reality that they did not live up to their self-promised expectations of the year behind them; forgetting that, like everything else in life, it only requires a little willpower.

Humans will spend any number of weeks slaving away and deliberating over what will change by the midnight chimes of Big Ben which, in itself, is effectively harmless; except that it leaves anywhere between two to four years of their lives squandered over the conception of some ambitious moral blueprint, only for it to abandoned within a matter of hours.

The concept stretches back over four-thousand years, when the ancient Babylonians made assurances to their gods that any farming equipment borrowed during the preceding year would be returned to their rightful owners, as well as settling any old accounts they may have. Their new year occurred at the vernal equinox which, to you and me, is the end of March - which is logical, considering that January is both astronomically and agriculturally arbitrary.

That was, at least, until the Romans got involved. The original Roman calendar had only ten months, designating March 1st as New Year's Day - a fact that is still reflected in the names of the months. (Ever wondered why 'octo' means eight but October is the tenth month?) It was not until around 713 BC that the second king of Rome, Numa Pompilius, added the months of Ianuarius and Februarius, and it would be almost seven-hundred years before Julius Caesar, now appearing in betrayal idioms and salads worldwide, decreed that New Year's Day would be observed henceforth on the since anglicised January 1st. It is said that the Romans began each year by making their own affirmations to the month's mythical namesake Janus who, much like the dearly departed Frankenlouie, had two faces: one looking backwards, one looking forwards - the poetry of which requires little elucidation.

These resolutions appear to have been steeped only in morality: to be good to others, forgive one's enemies and generally "da pacem oportunitatem." But once Christianity became the Roman Empire's official state religion in the 4th Century, any acknowledgement of pagan gods with such indulgent revelry was prohibited and replaced with prayers and fasting - because the name "Feast of the Circumcision of Christ" isn't disturbing in the slightest.

Medieval knights took the vow of the peacock, the Christian symbol of immortality, at the end of each year to re-affirm their commitment to chivalry; the Puritans, America's poster forefathers of the intolerance of pleasure, steered their children away from frivolous celebrations and encouraged the avoidance of sins and the fulfilling of their potential; and by the 19th century, resolutions focussed on doing good deeds, being less selfish and more helpful to others. The intentions of 21st Century New Year's Resolutions, in contrast, appear to have atrophied into self-centred quibbles about how fat we are and our wallets aren't.

Throughout 2007, the psychologist Richard Wiseman tracked over three-thousand people attempting to achieve a wide range of resolutions. Come December 31st, 88% of them had failed; and there is a wealth of juicy scientific and psychological nuggets to explain why.

The prefrontal cortex of the brain is responsible for willpower, and willpower is so weak in humans that evolution has gifted us an independent part of the brain to deal with it. The only problem is that this part of the brain, situated just behind the forehead, is also responsible for planning, discerning right from wrong, making choices, moderating social behaviour, keeping us focused, abstract reasoning, handling short term memory, the use of symbols and handling short term memory. (It is also the part of the brain severed during lobotomies, if one of your resolutions is to fly over a cuckoo's nest.) Quibbles about map reading in females aside, it is this multitasking that may provide an explanation why, for most, New Year's Resolutions remain unresolved. Temptation - as we say to our children to strike the fear of god in them - is what betrays us in the end. Who, after a hard day's graft, isn't seduced by the idea of drowning their preoccupations and drinking and chain-smoking themselves to sleep? Poor self-control is not a character flaw, but is inherent in us. Too much information is simply too taxing on our brains which, despite its biological complexities, does not appear to have been built for success.

The implication of this for budding ameliorators is that ten resolutions is nine too many. Old habits do, indeed, die hard, so trying to kill a large number of them at one time will turn out to be, by all accounts, a losing battle. The advice from Professor Wiseman is to make only one resolution, breaking them into a series of sub-goals that are concrete, measurable, and time-based; regularly reminding yourself of the benefits associated with achieving them; and by giving yourself rewards as each is achieved, keeping a handwritten or visual-based journal throughout.

As nice a thought it may be to forget about perishable possessions, individualism appears to be here to stay. Thus, my only New Year's Resolution is, as it always has been, simply to be happier. According to the New Economics Foundation's 'Ways to Wellbeing', there are only five steps I have to take to achieve a little more psychological vigour and perkiness.

Developing and maintaining relationships with family, friends, colleagues and neighbours is said to give you a perspective on the issues affecting your own life. This sounds logical, except it is usually the insufferable cretins with which people associate that seem to cause their inner-discomfort.

Perhaps exercising is the answer, the white noise in my head simply being the creaks of a slowly ballooning arse. Everything from gardening and daily strolls to competitive weightlifting and, where possible, luging is regarded as apt physical activity. Indeed, I had thought ahead, and treated myself to a six month gym membership...six months ago. I only went once, conflicting newspaper reports over its effectiveness every other Sunday thoroughly putting me off the idea.

The third step is a much less demanding, much more poetic affair. One must "take notice" of the intricate beauties of the world and reflect on them. Which proves difficult, as the only intricate beauty Glasgow has to offer is the occasional invitation of oral sex on the scrawlings of a bus window by a young man named Rab.

Next, as if researching this tome wasn't strenuous enough, I am then condescendingly instructed to go out and learn something. Not only do they say it will be fun, satisfying and beneficial to my confidence, but my increased self-esteem will reinforce the setting of goals. Surely it is time for me to spread my wings and discover what is happening in the outside world and not the one in my head. At the time of writing, of the BBC's Top 10 Most Popular stories there are 162 dead passengers, two dead mums and children and one case of Ebola literally five minutes from my house. I can feel my self-esteem growing by leaps and bounds.

Supposedly, research has shown that doing an act of kindness once a week over a six-week period can increase your wellbeing. Thus, the final step is to give; and I am glad that I had the foresight to acquire Rab's phone number.

Regardless of what it may bring, to all who read this, I wish you a year of love, happiness, peace, good health, opportunity and promiscuity. To those who don't, may they be cursed with heartbreak, sorrow, conflict, misfortune and gonorrhoea. So if there's someone you care about this New Year's Eve, you know what to do...