Happy New Year!
But why do we celebrate New Year’s Eve and New Year’s Day anyway? What is it about this one unique tick of the clock that prompts us to look back, evaluate, take stock, assess and resolve to do better? Psychologists suggest that the symbolism we attach to this one moment is rooted in one of the most powerful motivations of all: the instinct for survival.
The technicalities of it are the same as any other day. One second past midnight on 1 January, the day smoothly transitions from Monday to Tuesday. Not a significant event on any other day but on New Year’s Eve, this moment is eagerly awaited and met with a countdown, fireworks, resolutions, cheering and great celebrations.
The celebration part is obvious. As our birthdays do, New Year’s Eve gives us the opportunity to celebrate having made it through another year. Whether the year was good or bad, we made it through and we survived. Raise your glass and toast your survival! Cheers!
The other side of the New Year’s Day coin is the resolutions we all resolve to make. These are rooted in the instinct for survival too; we all resolve to live healthier, better, longer. New Year’s Resolutions are a prime example of the primal human need to have some kind of control over what lies ahead. The future is so scary because we don’t know what is going to happen. Not knowing what’s coming means that we don’t know how to keep ourselves safe and giving yourself a feeling of control is a way to counter that powerlessness. It doesn’t even matter if we stick to them or not. Committing to them, at least for that moment, gives us the illusion of taking control over the uncertainty of the days to come.
In many cultures around the world, good luck rituals are woven into their New Year celebrations. The Dutch eat donuts, believing that the circle is a symbol of success. The Greeks bake a cake called a Vassilopita with a coin inside, bestowing luck on the person who finds it in their slice. The Chinese first used fireworks as a way to chase off evil spirits. In many cultures, houses are scrubbed from top to bottom to sweep out the bad vibes and make room for better ones. These are all rooted, again, in not knowing what the year ahead holds for us. Uncertainty can be a scary thing and taking part in these rituals gives a feeling of taking control of our fate.
Across the world and throughout history, at least as long as there have been calendars, the celebration of a New Year means considering your weaknesses and how you might reduce the vulnerabilities they pose and to do something about the powerlessness that comes from thinking about the uncertainty of what lies ahead. The ways in which people note this unique passage of one day into the next are all manifestations of our deep-rooted instinct for survival.
But even though we don’t know what tomorrow may hold, we can still celebrate that we made it through another year. We survived. And the only way to make sure we can do this again next year is take each day as it comes. But that’s tomorrow’s problem, all we can do today is raise a glass and toast: “To survival!”