A new year, with its blank calendar pages, usually engenders widespread optimism, a feeling that this time around, things will be different. But this January comes with heavy baggage. After nearly two years of uncertainty, struggle, and loss due to the coronavirus pandemic, the future has many of us feeling more apprehensive than excited.
Humans tend to view big temporal changes as moments of renewal and potential, according to Katy Milkman, a behavioral economist at the University of Pennsylvania. “We group life into chapters,” she told me, underscoring the idea that people commonly see themselves as characters in their own book. Despite the typical mundanity of the first week of January, many feel like they’ve entered a new chapter filled with hope and promise. “The recent past feels more distant,” she said, and even just a few weeks ago “feels further behind us.” The year 2021 wasn’t the big shift from 2020 that folks expected, though, and many are dialing down this unbridled hope.
Part of this change in mindset lies in the emotional whiplash many experienced in the past year. After vaccines became available, Tyler J. McCall, a marketing specialist in Chicago, looked forward to traveling again, reconnecting with his family, and hosting in-person events. Instead, the pandemic continued, two new COVID variants fueled new surges, and vaccinations weren’t as widespread as some had hoped. McCall hit severe burnout and stepped away from his business and social media for nearly six months to reassess his mental and physical health. “The past two years have served up disappointment after disappointment,” he told me in a direct message. As 2022 begins, he’s focused on more pragmatic planning. “I’m simply taking the year day-by-day and keeping my planning far more short term than ever before.” Without long-term goals or plans, people can’t be disappointed when they don’t come to pass.
A feeling of realistic hope like McCall’s is psychologically proven to enhance well-being, according to Karen Reivich, the director of training programs for the UPenn Positive Psychology Center. Many people have the misconception that to be optimistic is to deny that a problem exists. But true optimism involves “seeing the world as it is, yet still believing—and more importantly behaving—in ways that create better outcomes for all of us,” Reivich told me. For instance, she said that the hardships of these past few years have helped many people recognize what keeps them going. It’s about saying: “This was really hard, and I’ve learned important things about myself, the world, and community.” Reivich calls this a “Yes, and …” mentality, which shifts our focus to the things we are grateful for and the things we can control.
So although people may not be thinking the entire world will magically change this year, many are looking for ways they can improve their life within this reality. Paulette Perhach, a Seattle-based writer and writing coach, is considering moving to be closer to her college friends and their families in Florida. “I just want to have a good day as many days as possible,” she told me. “With so much ugliness over the past two years, I think a lot about creating beauty and living in a way that feels beautiful.” Seeking smaller comforts rather than huge life changes or goals, such as spending more time with loved ones, makes sense as a way to improve our well-being against the odds.
Traditions of old can help too. Lauren Zehyoue, a communications professional in Washington, D.C., cooked up black-eyed peas and cabbage to eat on January 1, a Black American tradition believed to bring luck with good health and money in the coming year. “These rituals … do make me feel a little more in control,” she told me. Performing rites with the belief that they bring us better luck goes back for centuries, Mary McNaughton-Cassill, a psychology professor at the University of Texas at San Antonio, told me over the phone. “It allowed you to say, ‘We’ve made it this far.’” Setting resolutions, preparing certain meals, and reflecting on our past year offer hope not only because they make us think about the future, but also because they connect us to the past. “Not just what we did last year,” McNaughton-Cassill said, “but our culture, our ancestors, all those things.”
These coping mechanisms can build the kind of resilience that helps people through another year of uncertainty. In the United States, “for decades, we were thinking we had things in control,” McNaughton-Cassill noted. “But the pandemic made us all realize [that society is] a lot more fragile than what we’ve been thinking.” Seeing that fragility for what it is gives us the opportunity to adjust our expectations accordingly, to be less blindly optimistic about what a new year might bring. And in turn, we can learn to seek joy and comfort where we are, instead of where we wish we were.