THE PURPOSE OF NEW YEAR RITUALS: DESIGNING OUR EXPERIENCE OF TIME
Many people approach New Year’s resolutions similar to how they approach modern dating: they think maybe not defining the relationship (DTR) is best.
If you hesitate to reflect on the previous year or set intentions for the new year, it’s essential first to understand the purpose of New Year rituals and how to find the right ones for you.
The Purpose of New Year
Humans have been setting New Year resolutions for over 4,000 years. Things don’t survive thousands of years as traditions across cultures without serving a useful function to people and societies, and uncovering those functions can allow us to harness the energy of those rituals.
The New Year is, by definition, the byproduct of having a calendar. And the purpose of a calendar is to measure the passage of time, which allows us to conceptualize it in ways that give rise to new opportunities. For example, measuring the temperature of water allows us to heat it to the exact degree required for a perfect cup of coffee. Similarly to how many things depend on our ability to measure heat, the same is true for time and any other resource.
The Purpose of New Year Rituals
Marking the beginning of a New Year is a ritual experienced differently across cultures throughout history, but a few key purposes emerge across civilizations. By identifying those purposes, we can tap into the power and energy of a New Year.
Inherent to any promise or goal is the time frame within which it occurs. In some religions, the new year (which won’t start on January 1st because it follows a different calendar system) is a time of reckoning good and bad deeds. For the ancient Babylonians, new year rituals included paying back debts and following through on promises. In many ways, a New Year is a deadline, and deadlines enhance accountability.
Rituals also create a shared experience for people in a community, society, or civilization in a way that fosters connection. All those people in Times Square for a NYE celebration (a ritual that started in 1904!) might not know each other, but for a few moments, they feel connected. Rituals create social cohesion and induce a sense of belonging to a larger group of humans.*
*This might be precisely why some people don’t like to participate in certain rituals: because they don’t identify with the larger group of people who practice that ritual or the civilization from which that ritual was born. In those situations, it’s best to focus on finding your own “New Year,” whether it’s through a birthday, religious calendar (as opposed to secular New Year practices), or any other symbolic beginning that is meaningful to you.
Perhaps the most powerful thing that a New Year ritual facilitates is a greater sense of meaning for an individual. Celebrating another year around the sun could be an opportunity to reconnect to the experience of being alive. The organization of time in a box called “one year” offers us an opportunity to feel something about that year, make sense of that year, and gain wisdom from our experiences. These are all avenues for finding and reconnecting with the meaning we give to our existence.
Experiencing the power + purpose of New Year Rituals
Reflecting on the previous year
When you reflect on your year, you are actively integrating the experiences you had that year into the larger concept of who you are as a person. You are making sense of a specified portion of your life, and that greater understanding of your past choices increases your self-awareness and helps you approach the future with more intentional focus. To know where to go, you have to know where you are and who you are.
In addition to finding meaningful direction for the upcoming year, reflecting on the past year also offers an opportunity for a more coherent sense of identity, which is the psychological concept of wholeness. The harmony you experience from integrating your past into your understanding of the present is necessary for your peace of mind and emotional wellbeing.
Setting an Intention for the New Year
More important than setting a resolution is setting intentions with accountability structures. After reflecting on the previous year, we have a unique opportunity to select a few key things to focus on. This selection process helps us avoid the paralyzing paradox of choice we find ourselves regularly confronting.
Clarity of priorities helps us make decisions faster, which frees up our minds to take action instead of contemplating which action to take. If your intention for the new year was to be a better person, that’s exactly the kind of vague statement that the human brain finds meaningless in changing actual behavior. Alternatively, if you intended to read a new book each month from diverse authors or volunteer your time as a mentor each month, that would be specific enough for you to take meaningful action.
Now that you’ve connected to the power of New Year reflections and intention setting, it’s time to find the reflection questions and intention-setting activities that are right for you and begin your process.