What New Year’s Resolutions Teach Us about American Values

This post originally appeared at Sociology In Focus on January 17, 2012.

Did you make any New Year’s resolutions? Were they along the lines of losing weight, being healthier, saving money, getting organized, or learning something new? What can popular New Year’s resolutions teach us about American Values? In this post, Stephanie Medley-Rath explains how popular New Year’s resolutions reflect American values.

New Year 2012

In the exciting world of a parenting a toddler, New Year’s Eve for me involves staying up just late enough to watch the ball in Times Square. It aired live, so I watched it drop at 11 p.m. Central Standard Time and then went to bed. By the time the clock struck midnight at my house, I was asleep.

Before the ball in Times Square had even dropped the diet and exercise equipment advertisements were already airing. Many Americans declare New Year resolutions revolving around bodily self-improvement. We resolve to lose weight, get in shape, eat healthy, drink less alcohol, and quit smoking in the New Year. We might even get really specific. I’ve resolved to run 500 miles in 2012. [1. I ran close to 300 miles in 2011, so 500 miles seems attainable.] Bodily self-improvement may benefit a person’s health and add years to a person’s life. Regardless, these resolutions conform to American values of achievement and success.

Bodily Self-Improvement in the Name of Health

Values are a society’s ideas about what is good or bad. Smoking is bad and will kill us. Most Americans are ok with high taxes on cigarettes and there is rather minor resistance to most public smoking bans. Too much alcohol is considered unhealthy, but the right amount of red wine (whatever “right” means) can be good for our heart. We live in the era of an obesity epidemic and everyone is afraid of catching this disease [2. Last time I checked, you do not catch obesity. It is not the same as a cold or the flu. So why is our terminology the same? That’s for another day.]. We see smoking, excessive drinking, and obesity as bad. Limiting or better yet eliminating these things as good. In other words, Americans value health. The classic list of core American values identified by Robin Williams in 1970does not include health, but it does include achievement and success and activity and work. Most health-related resolutions would fit under one or both of these American values.

What Else Do We Resolve to Do Each New Year’s Eve?

If we examine other popular New Year resolutions, we can quickly see other coreAmerican values illustrated. A quick Google search finds that other non-health related resolutions include saving money, learning or doing something new, and getting organized.

Saving money does not neatly fit on the original list of core American values. Perhaps this is an emerging value or it is just a fluke and result of our current economic troubles. Regardless, saving money somewhat flies in the face of the American value of material comfort. Our standard of material comfort has changed to the point we are willing to spend a great deal of money to reach a level of comfort never before obtained in human history (Does anyone really need a heated toilet seat?). If saving money is becoming an American value then there is a value contradiction. It is difficult to save money, when the messages around us are to spend money and seek greater material comfort.

Learning or doing something new speaks to the American core value of activity and work. In 2011, I decided I would learn how to use my DSLR camera as intended (i.e., use manual mode instead of only auto). I failed. So learning this technology is still on my list of goals. For whatever reason, it does not seem like enough to just rely on auto. I have to learn manual mode and then I can think of myself as a real photographer rather than just an amateur (though I would definitely still be an amateur). In 2012, I have already signed up to learn how to carve my own stamps. Maybe I’ll be even more ambitious and attempt a run longer than a 5k (rest assured, I will not be doing a marathon in 2012). I am planning my first in the ground (non-container) garden and even bought books to learn how to can (my mother will think that is nuts as she sold all her canning equipment years ago). The point is that I have goals related to learning or doing something new in 2012.

Another popular resolution is getting organized. Getting organized illustrates the core American value of efficiency and practicality. We can see this in common phrases from professional organizers: “one in, one out” or “a place for everything and everything in its place.” The goal of organization is to make your home (or office or your life) run more efficiently. If there is not a place for everything then it takes longer to get to what you need. Getting organized may illustrate another value contradiction with material comfort. We think we need all the things we have to reach some sort of desired state of material comfort and then become overwhelmed by all these items necessitating systematic organization.

And are We Successful?

Now that it is the second week of January, most of us have our purchased gym membership or exercise equipment that remains unused. We’ve thrown out the fruits and veggies that simply rotted in our refrigerators. We are no more organized than we were two weeks ago. We haven’t saved any money because we bought that gym membership and fancy organization system. You might even be reading this because you decided to learn something new in 2012 and an introduction to sociology class fit the bill. As for quitting smoking, we are now smoking more because we are so stressed out from our utter failure at keeping any of our resolutions and you just were handed 2-3 books to read this semester in your introduction to sociology course. Yikes! [3. Maybe you’ve been successful and my exaggerating here doesn’t ring true for you, but many, if not most of us will fail sooner rather than later]

Americans then bond over our ability to fail so quickly at meeting our New Year’s resolutions. This leads us to another value contradiction. We value achievement and success, yet most of us accept the fact that we will not fully reach the goal we set out to accomplish with our resolutions.

Dig Deeper:

  1. Why do many Americans make the same resolutions each year? Why do Americans make such similar resolutions?
  2. Did you make New Year’s resolutions? Why or why not? If you did, are your resolutions similar to the popular resolutions?
  3. Why do Americans claim to value achievement and success yet accept failure and mediocrity so easily?
  4. What other resolutions do people make that are related to our American Values?