I've finally figured out why we make New Year's resolutions – yearly. It's the work of a stubborn subconscious phenomenon: the Zeigarnik effect (Z-effect). Russian psychologist Bluma Zeigarnik's research in the 1920s showed that we remember unfinished events better than finished events.
Unfinished events – like the fact that we had promised ourselves to clean out our closet last spring but still haven't, to exercise for 40 minutes four times a week, to scold our children less and love them more, to wash our underwear – tend to prey on our ever-more-cluttered mind. So when the new year comes around, we welcome the chance to rasa that tabula and set things right.
The Z-effect has both negative and positive results.
Not living fully in the present
American psychologist Will Joel Friedman says that the dissonance caused by unfinished business prevents us from living fully in the present moment.
This was evocatively described by poet Robert Service, sitting by the warm fireside at the end of a year, brooding: "I dedicate to solemn thought/ Amid my too-unthinking days,/ This sober moment, sadly fraught/ With much of blame, with little praise."
This dissonance also makes us forget what we have and instead keeps us hankering after what we don't. And this propels us toward more consumerism, another child, a second marriage, a third dessert.
What we've accomplished takes second place in our minds, and what we haven't done moves front and center. While this may serve as a useful to-do list, it also increases stress and chips away at our self-esteem.
Mind you, not every unfinished task is worth worrying about or even finishing. With some tasks, the end may not be what we expected, but we've reached it just the same. With others, we just need to cut our losses and move on. And then there are the struggles that are simply a part of life: We attempt to close the loop, only to find that it's a spiral.
A motivator and organizer
There are also positives to the Z-effect's persistent mulling over unfinished tasks. One study found that students who interrupt their studies to do other things remember their studies better. While I'm skeptical of this finding, a large majority of teenagers seem to swear by it.
The Z-effect can also act as an intrinsic motivator. That, in combination with the extrinsic motivator of the looming new year, serves as a good kick in the pants to cure procrastination and finish the unfinished – ergo, New Year's resolutions.
And by definition, New Year's resolutions themselves are an exercise in positivity. Even if we made the same ones last year and failed to keep them, we feel optimistic about success this year.
Turning regrets into resolutions
The concept of putting an arbitrary stake in the fluid river of time and calling it a new year began with the Babylonians, but it took the Romans to come up with the associated resolutions. It seems theirs were mostly of a moral nature, such as "I shall try to be a nicer conqueror next year."
Now we make New Year's resolutions in an effort to tie up loose ends, find closure, and thereby move ahead and not have to think about some things anymore, at least not with any angst. But we also make them to better ourselves and our world.
British essayist Charles Lamb said, "New Year's Day is every man's birthday" – a time of rebirth and renewal. But it is also associated with the Roman god Janus, with two heads, one looking back and the other looking forward. Learning from the past, we can move forward – wiser, we hope – and try again.
If we use the Z-effect and the new year wisely, it's a chance to escape the negative nagging and dissatisfaction over what we woulda-coulda-shoulda done but didn't do during the past year, and move toward a motivating perspective on what we need to do next year.
Sure, we can contemplate roads not taken, loves not requited, tiramisus not eaten, but only for a while. Then we need to get busy turning the serious and salvageable regrets into solid resolutions.
Ranjani Iyer Mohanty is a writer and business/academic editor.