THE FRESH START EFFECT
New Year’s is a time for a new you. When we change the calendar from one year to the next it serves as a marker and motivator for personal change. Wharton professor Katherine Milkman termed this psychological phenomenon the “fresh start effect.” In explaining the mindset behind this theory on Freakonomics Radio, Milkman argued that we dissociate our selves from last year’s failures – “Those are not me. That’s old me. That’s not new me. New me isn’t going to make these mistakes.” Her formulation is reminiscent of Maimonides’ language in his Laws of Repentance, where he writes that part of the change process requires a symbolic name change, as if to say, “I am a different person and not the same one who sinned.”
Milkman and her colleagues hypothesized that this dissociation with our past selves was not just confined to New Year’s but that there were other temporal landmarks throughout the calendar that spark improved behavior. To test their theory, they downloaded eight years’ worth of Google searches for the word “diet” and found that people search “diet” more at the outset of a new week, month, year, and semester; or after a birthday or a holiday. They found similar results when investigating when people go to the gym – there is a boost in attendance after these “new” opportunities for a fresh start.
From a Jewish calendrical perspective, Rosh Hashana, the Ten Days of Repentance, and Yom Kippur embody a fresh start perspective, where change is embedded within the framework of the new year. However, to constrain change and fresh starts to just that time of the year is severely limiting. Each new month also presents an opportunity for transformation. This is highlighted with Rosh Chodesh celebrations, and is especially pertinent for those who have the custom of fasting and repenting the day before each new month (known as Yom Kippur Katan).
Yet, the opportunities aren’t limited to new years or new months. Parshat Tzav begins with the laws of the burnt offering. An essential part of the sacrificial process was that the priest ceremoniously separated the ashes of the previous day’s sacrifice and removed them from the camp (Vayikra 6:4). Rabbi Samson Raphael Hirsch explains that this act signifies that every day is a fresh start, calling us “to go to our mission with full new devotion and sacrifice.” One application of this symbolism, Rabbi Hirsch asserts, is the importance of not being complacent with yesterday’s accomplishment, starting fresh with the same energy despite the somewhat repetitive nature of existence.
Perhaps we can suggest another message. Despite the “burnt” parts of yesterday, we are called on each day to start fresh. Remove yesterday’s shortcomings and start from scratch today. While new years, months, and weeks, provide an opportunity for reflection, the truth is, that every day does as well. The imperative of repentance and improvement is one that is operative all year long, not just during the High Holidays.
Looking for temporal landmarks on the calendar to give us boosted motivation to change is important. But we don’t have to wait for the first of the year, the first of the month, or next Monday until we start improving. Every day is a fresh start.