By Abak Hussain
How one can plan for the year ahead without becoming miserable
New Year’s resolutions don’t work! This sobering bit of insight we are often given by those looking to inject some realism into our December 31 flights of fancy. Looking around at our own sorry list of unfinished goals, untouched projects, unrealized dreams of the years gone by, it certainly seems the case that New Year’s resolutions do little for us beyond giving us a temporary rush of feel-good hormones when, in a short burst of energy, we solemnly declare that a new calendar year will renew us: New year, new me. I will get fit. I will get my career back on track. I will stop letting toxic relatives stress me out. I will read 50 books before the coming year is up. I will clean up my lifestyle, quit smoking, and kick the various chemical crutches that help me get through the day – no more moping, no more doping.
That’s the general resolution template: Add, subtract, or customize according to your preferences, and enter the New Year with your cup full of optimism (hold the sugar, obviously). No matter how beaten down or exhausted we might be feeling, come end-December, maybe, just maybe, we tell ourselves, this will be the year we turn things around. This will be the year that saves us.
And then come the experts and psychologists to pee on our parade: New Year’s resolutions don’t work! It is hard to disagree with these Eeyore-like pessimists – we all have that friend who boldly declared on a past New Year’s eve they were quitting smoking, and by January 3 they were back to their pack-a-day habit. Then there’s one of the most commonly heard resolutions out there: Losing weight. How many people out there, with the sincerest of intentions, decide to lose weight, only to not only not actually lose weight, but over the course of the year balloon up and push their BMI further up the danger zone? This was particularly true in 2020. But then, that was the pandemic year, I hear you saying. Everyone’s resolutions crashed and burned. Nobody could have seen that coming, so maybe it should be treated as a special case? Shouldn’t other years be a bit more stable?
Quite the opposite: Though an extreme example of a year, what 2020 taught us was that our lives will be largely determined by overwhelmingly large factors out of our control – pandemics, wars, climate change, catastrophic government decisions, an economy in freefall, the unpredictable tide that changes social and cultural attitudes in directions we cannot predict. By some miracle, even if you are able to insulate yourself against the fluctuations of the outside world, unwanted plot twists may snake their way into your personal life and turn things around in the blink of an eye. Your bad back suddenly gets worse causing you to howl in pain, a phone call informs you that a loved one is in the hospital with a dire prognosis, a nasty email from the office drops into your inbox notifying you of sweeping changes to the company – an email that may well be enough to ruin your day, your week, your month, or even your year.
Uncertainty is the constant reality of life, and we may make our plans all we wish, but life will just happen to us. Control, let’s face it, is largely an illusion – we are not in the driver’s seat. We are not even shotgun. We are tied up in the trunk crying out at every road bump, hoping to make it through the day. Man proposes, God disposes, our grandparents used to say. That ancient wisdom still holds, and is now available in new Millennial packaging in the form of a widely seen meme: A figure, forehead dripping with anxious sweat, trying to grab a hold of a massive ball labelled “Life Plans” being held back by a giant figure labelled “Life” (you can play around with the labels a bit, it is a meme after all, but the general idea remains). There does not, then, seem to be a realistic hope that the New Year will give us the reboot we so desperately crave.
There are many things that I would like to do this year (but I don’t know how)
Before you conclude, dear reader, that I have chosen the path of the Debbie Downer in my end-of-the-year musings, let me assure you that in the face of all evidence trying to push me towards doom and gloom, I remain an incorrigible believer in self-improvement and fresh starts. This belief, however, does involve the painful practice of sometimes plumbing the depths of hopelessness to bounce back into hope. We are, after all, creatures of continuous learning, and if we pay attention, we can make our plans more realistic, more robust, and insulate ourselves against many of the disappointments that are bound to come.
Instead of, for example, large, vague, overarching goals like “getting fit” or “losing weight,” we could break it up into manageable chunks. “I will try my best to walk a few rounds in the park every Saturday morning” is a much more realistic resolution than “I will spend an hour in the gym every day” – if you aren’t already a fitness nut. Furthermore, it also seems that we are too goal-driven, and many of these goals do not even speak to our own desires. We may slap ourselves with a career goal or a beauty goal or a familial goal (have a second child) or a property goal (buy a bigger home), but we should do some soul-searching in the process. Are these the things that we really want, or are they what society tells us we should want? Moving up the ladder at work, on the surface, seems like an accomplishment and certainly gives one bragging points in dinner table conversation, but does it really move us closer to the life and self-realization we long for? If not, our resolutions may turn out to have feet of clay, and we may self-sabotage without even knowing it.
Yes, the deck is stacked against us, but we can, I believe, absorb, digest, and assimilate the lessons we have learnt over time, and make wiser, more empathetic, more soulful resolutions. We can be kinder to ourselves, and not just madly pursue goals which may or may not be attainable, or may not even be what we long for in the first place. We can accept setbacks and unpredictability as part of life, and congratulate ourselves on any baby steps we take in the right direction. We can extend this kindness towards others as well, acknowledging that everyone is fighting a battle the outside world cannot see. We can let the lessons of each year help us change and grow – it is a process of constant evolution and increasing maturity that will give us better tools to tackle the coming years with courage, and keep hope alive.
When it comes to the big dreams, sometimes we just have to roll the dice, while tempering our expectations that everything will be OK overnight. Let’s say I am looking to upgrade my home address. I know now, for example, that I could find the perfect apartment for my family, meticulously check every aspect, every variable, before signing the lease, but then soon after I move in, a massive, ugly construction project could start next door, creating air pollution, noise pollution, generally making life hell for a while. This unfortunate turn of events will not catch me off-guard, it will not send me into a tailspin of frustration, it will not cause me to beat myself up, screaming that I should not have moved here in the first place. I will calmly sip my tea looking out onto the monstrosity being erected in my backyard, utter a few expletives in its general direction, and get to work on rational, workable, mitigating steps for the foreseeable future.
Photo by Matthew Henry
Abak Hussain is a journalist, and Contributing Editor at MW Bangladesh