And now for “27 ways to feel bad about yourself while the last piece of Christmas pudding you’ve ‘indulged’ in is still making its way through your intestinal tract…”
As the new year dawns, you’ll notice that without ANY space to breathe whatsoever, what was once a newsfeed saturated with sequins, pints and party platters becomes one bursting at the seams with resistance bands, Nutri Bullets and all manner of “New Year, New You” rhetoric.
If that works for you, great. If it doesn’t, keep on reading…
If you find all of this relentless (and, at times, negative) then join the club. I’ve decided I’m over it. I’ve clicked the “unsubscribe” button and it’s incredibly liberating.
“New Year, New You” regimes are framed in such a way that they seem motivating, uplifting and encouraging. The reality is they’re designed to sell gym members and juice cleanses at a time when they’re most marketable and we’re most vulnerable. The sheer volume and velocity of this kind of content coming at us from every angle — while we’re still polishing off the last of the mince pies — can make us feel as though we’ve already failed within the first few minutes of the new year.
Add to the mix, the pressure of New Year’s resolutions — which suggest that regardless of our current situation, we have much to improve upon; that we need to be better. We’re encouraged to set out a new set of goals, towards which to move to in the hopes of finding what we all want: happiness. We’ve barely finished the last verse of Auld Lang Syne and already, we’re exhausted, defeated and riddled with festive guilt.
But here’s a thought: instead of subscribing to what’s become a very tired narrative, this year, let January be yours. There are so many reasons why you might consider this.
1. You can start anything any time.
While the first month of the year offers us a convenient fresh start, it’s still as arbitrary as the beginning of any other week — aka Monday. January doesn’t need to be *the* specific month where we all make massive changes in tandem. I began exercising regularly two years ago in the month of November. It was irrelevant to me that Christmas was coming. I knew that if I pursued it in January (when the whole world of social media is competing to out-do one another) I’d feel unnecessary, added pressure.
2. January is grim enough.
Unless you’re reading this from the Southern hemisphere, January is the most miserable month of the year. If we were bears in the woods, we’d be deep in hibernation, smuggling comfort food to enjoy between naps. Can we at least pick a less grim time of year to insist on being so hard on ourselves? Here’s an idea: How about reframing January as the month to be kind to yourself. Instead of a “New Year, New You”, how about a “New Year, perfectly-fine-as-you-are you”?
3. Wave goodbye to social comparison.
It may feel like everyone else is getting up at 5am for yoga seven days a week while you can’t drag yourself to the gym even once. Or people’s bowls of porridge look like a Pinterest-perfect work of art while yours looks like something the dog threw up. But this way of thinking isn’t unusual. From the beginning of time, we’ve been comparing ourselves to others to get a sense of how well (or not) we’re doing — or as a measure of our self worth. The arrival of a new year gives rise to that type of comparison in even greater doses. I call it “social comparison on speed”.
The thing is, with social comparison, someone will always come out on top. And that also means someone will be at the bottom — you or the person you’re comparing yourself to. It creates a culture of one-upmanship, which will inevitably have a negative spin on it. Nothing good can come of this; I assure you. You either come away feeling inadequate or with a sense of being better than someone else.
4. Become acquainted with temporal comparison
Yes, someone else may have climbed Mount Everest before you’ve even taken down your Christmas tree, but you are you and not them. Instead of comparing our reality to everyone else’s highlights reel, this January choose something more positive and realistic: temporal comparison.
According to renowned American psychologist Leon Festinger, “temporal comparison” is when you compare yourself today with yourself of another time, rather than yourself now with someone else. It’s more “look how far you’ve come” than “look how much better they are than you”. It encourages you to settle into your own lane, at your own pace, on your own route, taking into account all that is relative to you and you alone.
Having struggled with crippling anxiety a few years ago, to the point where I couldn’t leave my own home for fear of having a panic attack, I now see it as a personal improvement — and achievement — that I can go about my life without hyperventilating into a paper bag. To someone who has never felt the faintest flutter of anxiety, feeling good in a packed shopping centre wouldn’t even register as a small victory, but for me it does. It’s all relative.
5. Goals aren’t everything.
For all the self-help books in the world, and all the philosophers and poets who try to answer the question about what happiness is really all about, it can basically be distilled down to this: It’s about the moments. The in-betweens. The here and now. With that in mind, I’m reconsidering this whole January goal-setting business. Hear me out.
Instead of being driven by achieving a certain goal — which for one person might be getting a promotion, and for another might be getting a certain amount of followers on social media — I have decided to be driven first and foremost by the kind of life I want to live: my lifestyle. Not what I want to have, or where I want to get to, but how I want to spend my time, right now, next week and so on. If more money means a job that comes with more stress and no time for doing that things I enjoy, then I’ll be asking myself: Is this a goal that will have a positive impact on my happiness? I don’t think so.
6. It’s true what they say; it’s all about the journey
The journey towards an elusive goal is every bit as important as the destination. When you strike a goal off your list, you might experience a temporary surge of happiness or satisfaction, but then you will inevitably settle back to a level of contentment — or lack thereof — dictated by the quality of your day-to-day lifestyle as well as your perspective. In the psychology world it’s known as “hedonic adaptation“. Netflix’s Happy documentary from 2011 makes a compelling argument for this.
It’s about the moments. The in betweens. The here and now.
I know too many people who are so goal-focused that they struggle to enjoy the lulls in between these peaks and troughs. When they achieve their goals, they don’t know quite what to do with them. And just like that, they’re onto the next thing.
What will make the most of your moments? At what cost will you achieve these isolated goals? Goals certainly have their place, and they can be a great motivator, but instead of hurtling towards what you think will make you happy, let your goals be informed by the kind of moments you want to have.
So, if you insist on resolving to do something, do this: go easy on yourself, be your own benchmark for success. And think about the kind of lifestyle you want to live. Happy New Year.
Caroline Foran is a journalist and a best-selling author of “Owning It: Your Bullshit Free Guide to Living With Anxiety” and “The Confidence Kit: Your Bullsh*t-Free Guide to Owning Your Fear“.