Though surely with the best of intentions, we say it for the most part reflexively, because it's the thing to say. Happy New Year!
It's a funny sound, when you think of it: happy. Its origin is in the old English hap, or happe, deriving from the Norse, meaning fortune, chance, as in happenstance, mayhap, perhaps, and so on. Yet the Buddhist concept of happiness--as in "may I be happy"--has little to do with chance and much to do with intention and practice. Happiness is construed as freedom from the suffering that we bring upon ourselves, through our own ignorance or attachments.
So my New Year's wish, to myself and others--particularly to those who read along with me in The Buddha Diaries--is happiness in that form: may we all find the way to liberate ourselves from suffering in the coming year, and to avoid being the cause suffering for others. Which, as always, of course, entails the hard, ceaseless, demanding work of attention and consciousness.
Happy New Year, everybody!