At the dawn of 2020, it felt like everyone was making optimistic promises to themselves about all the things they were going to achieve in the coming year.
Travel, self-improvement, self-actualization, a come-up, a glow-up — it was all supposed to happen in 2020. Of course, most of us wound up stuck at home for most of the year, unable to socialize, let alone actualize.
2020 was, in short, the year without resolutions, or at least a year when very few of our 2020 resolutions came true. Perhaps it makes sense, then, that many people seem less than enthused about making resolutions.
Everyone is hoping for a better 2021, of course, but after the massive crash-and-burn disaster that was this year, it's scary to pin our hopes on another year. Instead, many people are either trying to take this time to reflect on the past year or are desperately trying not to pin any hopes and dreams on 2021.
"In the aftermath of the past 12 months, setting such goals feels futile," writes Mirel Zaman. "If 2020 taught us anything, it's that planning ahead is for suckers. If we were among the luckier ones, the disruption of 2020 looked like canceled trips, postponed weddings, and lost days spent in interminable lockdown. For others, that disruption took the shape of life-threatening illness, financial insecurity, racial violence, and death. With life's uncertainty thrown into sharp relief, why would I spend a second planning for a 'better me' in 2021?"
If you're a follower of The Secret, or someone who believes in manifesting and the power of good intentions, you might be dismayed by this. And of course it's never a good idea to be pessimistic to avoid getting hurt, but perhaps not having so many resolutions this year is not such a bad thing after all.
New Year's resolutions are often fairly toxic. At this time of year, we tend to see a flush of ads trying to profit off our self-hatred. Diet programs, gym memberships, and change-your-life-in-30-days courses are abundant and costly in more ways than one. It's boom time for the diet industry and yet many people hurt themselves by embarking on painful, dangerous programs, designed so that you quickly burn out, see no actual change, and put your health at risk.
In addition, resolutions often fail. "The evidence shows that most of the time people aren't successful at them," says Richard Ryan, a professor at the University of Rochester.
"Personal goals aren't necessarily pointless — but it's worth interrogating those we most commonly associate with resolutions, which tend to be about attaining some kind of elusive, always-out-of-reach perfection: sleep more, work harder, eat differently," writes Zaman. "These goals drive us to beat ourselves up when we fall short and too often create a disappointing sense of 'what next?' when we achieve them. This past year, however, had a way of shifting our perspective in order to allow us to tap into our core values again — finding excitement in life, feeling close to our loved ones, feeling grounded in ourselves, being of service to our communities."
Instead of making resolutions this year, Ryan says, "If you want to make a New Year's resolution that really makes you happy, think about the ways in which you can contribute to the world."
What if we started a New Year not with a desire to change ourselves but instead with gratitude for what we do have and forgiveness for what we don't? What if instead of focusing on our own self-improvement (which too often becomes self-harm), we could try to envision a better world—one where we don't have to fight so hard to constantly improve ourselves and best others.
Ryan's research shows that this will probably make you happier than anything. "There's a lot of distress out there: If we can set goals that aim to help others, those kinds of goals will, in turn, also add to our own well-being," he says. "The research shows it's not just good for the world but also really good for you."
Perhaps now is the time to make resolutions that involve something other than ourselves, like those featured in the New York Times's Resolutions for the Planet. Perhaps getting off the treadmill of eternal self-critique is also a way of avoiding capitalism's mantras of endless growth (and inevitable collapse), instead turning to a more collective and peaceful way of being.
A caveat: Some people already spend too much time taking care of others around them and deserve to take time to care for themselves more. Balance is everything, and it might not be a good idea to put pressure on yourself at all this year. "See if you can be a bit gentler with yourself or give yourself this same kind of grace that you might give to someone that you really love or care about who's in a similarly challenging situation," suggests Dr. Sophie Lazarus, a psychologist at Ohio State University.
Maybe we don't even need any kind of optimism this year. After everything that has happened, saying anything hopeful or even making definitive statements about anything going forward feels like a jinx. And the truth is that we also just don't know what 2021 will look like. It could be that the vaccine is a huge success and we're all out partying by the end of the year, or we could be in for another year of pandemics and chaos. Most likely, it'll be a mix of both, but at the moment, the future is dark. It's hard to plan for what's next when we just don't know what's next.
That's not necessarily a bad thing either. Sometimes things happen when we follow our intuition and pay attention to the present around us, not when we prematurely choose them. COVID-19 made many people question the meaning of their goals and the purpose of their lives. Many of us were forced to grieve old dreams while learning to take fewer things for granted.
The future, as they say, is dark — not dark as in bad, just empty and blank. We'll have to pay attention to the world around us, taking things as they come and learning as we go, watching for signs, and giving back when we can.