Welcome 2020! A new year. A fresh start. And such visual symmetry. Sublime.
I loved this year’s holiday season because the timing worked perfectly for the ultimate in relaxation. People reading this outside of the United States may not understand this (and, fair enough, because it is sort of insane), but it’s rare here to get more than one week off. And, oh my goodness, what a heavenly gift it is! It took me that whole first week just to settle down, relax a little, and stop habitually mentally scanning for what to do next. I had more rest in the last week and a half than I have probably had in one time period for over a decade and, lo and behold, I actually have some perspective as a result. Well-rested is a phenomenal vantage point from which to intend to do amazing, brilliant, challenging things!
Traditionally this is the time of year where many set goals, resolutions, intentions – whatever you want to call them – to make the positive life changes that they have been feeling are needed. Despite my innate aversion to joining the herd in general and particularly with regards to new year’s resolutions, I feel so ready to take on what lies ahead and am zooming into this new year with passion and drive, optimism and a less waffley inner compass. I am committed to living more boldly, to taking a stand (even if it’s just in my small way), to sticking to a low-bad diet and to saying no to negativity (Wall Street Journal, December 27, 2019: For the New Year Say No to Negativity). I am also (mostly) avoiding refined sugars (at least for the month of January). Sweetness can be found everywhere in life and I am determined to pursue it in every direction except the bakery!
All this energy and enthusiasm is AWESOME. Until February (or mid-January?), when the year ahead is looking awfully long and old habits so comfortable and familiar. Did you know that it takes at least two months to develop a new habit, according to a 2009 study published in the European Journal of Social Psychology? We are all human. Eventually, the excitement will wear off and no amount of stored up sleep or goodwill will be able to fuel us adequately through whatever life has in store. We get tired. We get complacent. And we start to slip, even with the best of intentions. Personally, I suffer from “What’s the point?”-ism, which is akin to hopelessness. Does anything little old me ever does really matter?
Here is an example: I used to wash and re-use my plastic sandwich bags. Some nice person even gave me a dry rack like the one pictured below for a wedding present. It was just what I wanted!
But I gave up on washing out, drying and re-using my plastic bags because at some point I looked around and saw people throwing away all manner of things, idling big old gas-guzzling vehicles without a thought, not to mention the absurd destruction and desolation of war. My plastic bags seemed quite small and inconsequential. My idealism felt quaint and silly. Hopelessness set in and infected me with what’s-the-point thinking. So I gave up. For a little while it felt so indulgent to pretend I didn’t care. How liberating to just mindlessly throw stuff away!
It didn’t last long, though. You see, when I am not suffering from what’s-the-point-ism, I approach life with unfettered openness, curiosity and hopefulness. Eventually, I swing back to thinking that I may be just one little person, but at least I can say I tried. I stood by my values and set my intention to do right and I tried. No one else is washing their plastic bags? Well, fine. To be fair, it’s time-consuming and takes up a lot of counterspace as well. I think I’d rather just not use plastic bags. Plastic isn’t any good for us anyway.
The wall of apathy constructed by what’s-the-point thinking extends well beyond plastic sandwich bags. I have talked myself out of a whole bunch of good work using the rationale that there are so many big problems in the world, what could I possibly change? I am but a drop in an ocean (of floating plastic detritus, to keep with the plastic analogy). When you look at the news every day, why the heck wouldn’t you feel hopeless and inconsequential? It turns out, according to research highlighted by the Wall Street Journal (WSJ), that our brains are hard-wired with a negativity bias. There is “a universal tendency for bad events and emotions to affect us more strongly than positive ones.”
However, the negativity and hopelessness that pervades our thinking is often a false construct. Studies have shown that “we focus so much on bad news that we don’t realize how much better life is becoming for people around the world…just about every measure of human welfare is improving except one: hope. The better life gets, the gloomier our worldview. In international surveys, its the rich who sound the most pessimistic – and the worst informed.” (WSJ)
We all slip, in big ways and in small. Should being infected with hopelessness make us quit on our intentions entirely? Or be cause for shame or remorse? Or, worse, for not trying in the first place? No way! You fall down, you pick yourself up. Re-commit to what matters to you and try again. Remember that because of how our brains are wired it takes four good things to overcome one bad thing. Surely the most important stuff in life is learned through failing, learning from that experience, and then trying again.
There is nothing enlightened about negative thinking. Hopelessness is not a good or helpful place to be. Helping just one other person (animal, place) makes a huge difference – for that one person (animal, or place) anyway. We can’t lose hope and close ourselves off in the face of the enormity of the world’s problems. Every little bit matters. We each as individuals matter. “We do good things not because we can save the world all alone. We do good things because it is right, and because we can.” (Bear Grylls)
Be the ray of hope for just one person today and notice what a difference it makes – for them and for you! Cherish and encourage creativity. Read a great book. Be bold and courageous. Surprise yourself. Be curious and be kind. These are some of the essential wonders of life, of being human. THIS is the sweet in life, no sugar added.