Resolutions, Self, and Society

January 1, 2008
Posted by Jay Livingston

Resolutions seem so American. They reverberate with cultural themes like optimism, “active mastery” (sociologist Robin Williams’s term from the 1950s), hard work, and change.

I know that the custom of resolutions is now widespread. Google resolution nouvel an, and you get 386,000 hits (though I wonder how many of these are Canadian, not French). Even in Italy – hardly the place for a puritanical effort like resolutions – risoluzione nuovo anno returns 240,000 hits.

But these are dwarfed by the 6.6 million pages with “New Year’s Resolution.” (I know this is shoddy methodology, but even allowing for difference in base rates of language and Internet use, it seems like a huge difference.)

The idea of self-improvement in America goes back at least to Ben Franklin, and it blossomed in the late nineteenth century. But somewhere along the way, probably after World War II, the focus shifted from society to self. The resolutions we take for granted today – maybe the ones you and I made today – probably include things like working on some project, reading some number of books, fixing something in the house, and of course the most common, losing weight.

I will try to make myself better in any way I possible can with the help of my budget and babysitting money. I will lose weight, get new lenses, already got a new haircut, good makeup, new clothes and accessories.
That’s from a girl’s diary circa 1982, reprinted in The Body Project, by Joan Jacob Brumberg. The girl assumes – and her assumption is so much a part of our culture that we don’t really notice it or consider it remarkable – that making yourself more attractive makes you “better.” These resolutions about body go hand in hand these days with work on “personality” – be more outgoing, fun, etc.

Brumberg contrasts this with a diary excerpt from seventy years early, 1892.
Resolved, not to talk about myself or feelings. To think before speaking. To work seriously. To be self-restrained in conversation and action. Not to let my thoughts wander. To be dignified. Interest myself more in others.
Here what makes you better is not the expression of self but the restraint of self. I imagine this girl time-transported to the US today. I picture her telling people that she has resolved not to talk about her feelings. And I imagine her bafflement at the others’ reaction to what she thought was a virtue.

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

That would be an interesting study right there - to gather and analyze a bunch of people's new year's resolutions, looking for underlying themes and such.