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Resolved: To keep making New Year's resolutions

The history of New Year's resolutions
The history of New Year's resolutions 05:46

The clock is ticking once again to a New Year, and millions of Americans are right now making promises they probably won't keep. Studies show most New Year's resolutions (such as getting into shape, or eating more healthily) are bound to fail. But did you know we've been failing at them for thousands of years?

Candida Moss, a historian and professor of theology at the University of Birmingham, says annual attempts at self-improvement are as old as the celebrating of New Year's itself. "Even if we go very far back in history, we can find people trying to kind of orchestrate a fresh start at the New Year's through resolutions," she said. "The ancient Babylonians had a big celebration, almost two weeks long, where they celebrated the New Year around springtime in March or April. And they would make resolutions. And they were small – pay off small debts, small vows about better behavior. And the Romans would do the same thing."

In 46 B.C., Julius Caesar created a new Roman calendar that started the New Year on the first day of January. January was named for the Roman god Janus, whose two faces look both forward and back. According to Moss, "That's really important for how we think about New Year's as a kind of taking stock and starting again."

But were these traditions about making people happy, or making the gods happy? "These are primarily about making the gods happy," Moss said. "And that's really what New Year's is about; it's a kind of supernatural spring cleaning."

Over the centuries, traditions changed. For many in the West, New Year's lost much of its religious significance. The advent of electricity helped turn the celebration into a nighttime affair, complete with champagne toasts and midnight kisses.

But through it all, the ritual of the New Year's resolution remains.

Back in 2008, my old friend and "Sunday Morning" colleague Nancy Giles and I revealed our own resolutions to the viewing public. 

We got together fifteen years later to see how they held up! 

Mo Rocca and Nancy Giles look back on their 2008 New Year's resolutions.  CBS News

I loved my resolutions so much I had the same three for years!

  1. Learn to speak Spanish fluently.
  2. Read the Bible cover to cover. (I just can't get past Leviticus.)
  3. Complete a back handspring unassisted.

So, how is my Spanish going? Asi Asi. I have not been to gymnasio for a long time, so the back handspring? I don't know that it's ever gonna happen now.

Back in 2008 Giles said, "Wouldn't it be better to approach our New Year's hopes very, very quietly, so that we're all less humiliated when we don't get there? I try to make my resolutions more specific, realistic, doable. Take salsa lessons! Throw out more paper!"

Today she reports, "I was worried. I was sure I was gonna say a lot of things that down the line I hadn't done. But kind of being cool and being content with one's life and living quietly, I can do that. And I can still do that."

And what grade would you give yourself on your resolutions? "I'd say maybe a B, B-minus. The paper thing still, really … but I'm working on it!"

Moss said the kinds of resolutions we're more likely to keep are small ones: "A psychologist will tell you, [take] small baby steps," she said. "Don't revolutionize your life just overnight."

New Year's is arguably the most optimistic holiday, and New Year's resolutions – succeed or fail – have a lot to do with that. After all, there's no chance you'll achieve a goal if you never set one in the first place.

"I think everyone struggles with just the problem of not living up to the person they want to be," said Moss. "And funnily enough, the whole system is based on the idea that you'll inevitably fail, but it doesn't matter, because there's always next year!"

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Story produced by Mark Hudspeth. Editor: George Pozderec. 

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