By Katherine Arbuthnott
Professor of Psychology, University of Regina
Welcoming the new year may feel a bit different this year, given the challenges of 2020 and the inability to celebrate together.
For many people, the yearly date change — adding one more year to life’s tally — puts a greater focus on long-term goals than busy lives usually allow. For many, this leads to the tradition of New Year’s resolutions, a chance to consider our progress on becoming the “ideal self” many people hope to achieve by the end of their days.
Even with the knowledge that the focus will shift back to the short-term demands of day-to-day by mid-January, it is valuable to consider those longer-term aspirations, if for no other reason than for people to remind themselves that there’s more to them than the harried exhausted person who, at the end of the day, wants nothing more than to get into their PJs and play a video game, binge-watch a favourite TV serial, or read a current novel.
A new year may encourage people to think long-term, but it’s more difficult to make long-term resolutions for 2021 given the uncertainty and restrictions brought about by the pandemic. (AP Photo/Ted S. Warren)
But this year, thinking about the long-term is much more difficult. The pandemic has given us all a different experience of time. The pandemic has not only served as a visceral reminder that something unexpected can land in our well-envisioned path, halting all progress. It has also made the path beyond the pandemic unclear.
As many pundits are noting, a “return to normal” — meaning life exactly as it was before COVID-19 entered our vocabulary — is highly unlikely. The future has become less predictable, which also means that setting long-term goals is much more difficult. It’s hard to imagine an ideal self without knowing what that self will be experiencing.
As a psychologist, I think resolutions for 2021 should be much more short-term than usual. It is probably challenging enough to figure out what’s needed to make it through the months until everyone is vaccinated and can start to make their way back into a more social world.
You might be thinking that this hardly seems like a good use of once-a-year resolutions, but even though these goals will be very short-term, this is valuable given that public health leaders are warning that these particular months are likely to be the hardest of the pandemic. So even though these goals will likely only be needed for a few months, they can be vital for determining our state when the pandemic comes to an end.
Living through several months of pandemic uncertainty and restrictions has likely given many people a pretty good idea of which personal vulnerabilities this constrained life chafes against. Some people may be struggling to keep their emotional balance. For others, the absence of friends and even casual acquaintances may be driving them mad. Others might be panting to get back to the gym.
These personal points of pain can give people some idea of what resolutions they might make. Addressing those specific points may help enable people to care for themselves well enough to arrive at the pandemic’s end with some semblance of good physical and mental health.
Reviewing the advice that mental health professionals gave at the beginning of the pandemic may be helpful in figuring out your specific short-term resolutions to deal with personal challenges. Or you, like many others, might have discovered the healing properties of nature during this time, as documented in a preprint (not yet peer reviewed) study. If so, your resolutions could be about making sure you continue those activities and visiting your favourite nature spots during these winter months. My own resolution, for instance, is to spend at least five minutes each day appreciating the birds in my yard, which never fails to lift my spirits.
For those who can’t resist thinking about long-term goals, despite the uncertainty that this pandemic year has introduced into the world, you could review what you’ve learned during the pandemic. Long-term resolutions could be based on the consideration of three things:
1. What do I want to keep from changes I made to cope with the pandemic?
2. What do I want to reclaim from the pre-pandemic time?
3. How would I “build back better” if I were in charge of the world or my neighbourhood?
Each of these things will require some long-term goal focus and can help you imagine a new ideal self for the post-pandemic times.
Like Christmas 2020, New Year’s 2021 is likely to be unique in many people’s memories. Many people have gone out of their way to make these moments as tolerable as possible, given the circumstances, but these new ways to commemorate the holidays are unlikely to become traditions or things people will want to repeat in subsequent years.
Approaching 2021 resolutions by harvesting any bright spots or treasures that have revealed themselves during this unusual time may help illuminate a new path to follow once the pandemic has ended.
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