A bright, fresh year is before us. With it comes an opportunity to say goodbye to 2020 and welcome 2021. Focus on gratitude and intentions, not New Year’s resolutions.
There is no doubt that 2020 will be a year to remember for everyone around the globe. It dished up a challenge that every country across the world is facing. In a way, it has united us in our shared predicament. Yet we each have our own stories and experience from the year. No matter what our personal situation is, the end of this year marks an opportunity to reflect.
Before we dive into the list of things we aren’t happy with about the year 2020, and the things we want to change about ourselves and our habits, let’s first consider what we are grateful for from this remarkable year.
I’ve learned that gratitude is a powerful force that shapes the way my mind perceives the world. The more I focus on it, the happier I become. Because I am scanning for good things, the more aware I am of the day-to-day beauty in the world. Gratitude has been part of my mindfulness practise for a number of years now. I share this important practice with my two boys. It’s better for them to build the gratitude muscle early in life. Unfortunately, I’ve discovered that a lifetime of bad habits towards negative and incessant thinking takes a long time to undo!! I’m still a work in progress.
Our nightly bedtime routine has the three of us (and sometimes four, if my husband chooses to join the fun) nestled into one of the boy’s beds. We take turns saying three things we are grateful for from the day. We call them our three thankfuls. The goal is for each thankful to be different from one day to the next. They can be as specific as we like. Invariably, one of the boys stumbles at the beginning and starts with something like this, “Well I am definitely not thankful for dying in my Minecraft game and losing all the items I accumulated.” The struggle to find the good is because our minds have a negativity bias.
Our brain on negativity
I learned about the brain’s negativity bias from neurologist Richard Mendius, MD and neuropsychologist Rick Hanson, Ph.D. in their book Buddha’s Brain: the practical neuroscience of happiness, love and wisdom. In it, they include numerous studies that demonstrate how the brain is wired to detect negative information faster than positive information. The hippocampus stores negative events carefully for future reference, more so than neutral or positive ones. Negative events perpetually trump positive ones. For example, it typically takes about five positive interactions to overcome the effects of a single negative one.
Therefore, it’s an uphill battle for us to be positive and grateful in the best of times, let alone in the midst of a global pandemic. But we can do it – our happiness depends on it!!
Early on in the pandemic, when I was missing seeing my friends and family I started a list of things I am grateful for. Throughout the year I built on the list. At the top of the list is time. With no more two-hour commute to Toronto every day I found extra time. I had additional time to spend with my family, slowing down and doing things I enjoy. Here is my list of things I am grateful for and that I have enjoyed in 2020:
- Morning walks with my husband
- Daily morning meditations in my backyard (which moved inside when it got cold)
- Evening family walks
- Family showtimes – The Office, Brooklyn Nine-Nine, Kim’s Convenience, The Good Place and now Schitt’s Creek
- Art Therapy – a project Carter did in his grade seven art class
- Family game nights – Blokus, What do you meme?
- Baking – banana muffins, oatmeal bars, cookies
- Sports and active fun – basketball, baseball, workouts courtesy of Austin’s gym teacher, Nerf gun wars, hula hooping, dancing, ultimate frisbee at Grandma and Grandpa’s, bike rides, Spikeball, and walks at Prospect Park with Nana.
- Projects – Barb’s book, Carter’s film projects, Austin’s Math Boi tutorials, my husband’s web development projects.
- Reading time – the news, The Happiness Advantage by Shawn Achor, Untethered Soul by Michael Singer, Seat of the Soul by Gary Zukav
- Evening campfires
- Zoom and House Party calls with friends and family
- My sister’s successful surgery
- My job – I love the work I do, my team and the mandate of my organization.
- My health – not to be taken for granted in the midst of a health crisis.
Honouring all feelings
Our lists will all be unique to our own circumstances. There may mainly be simple things such as; the flowers that bloomed in my yard or the hot water that runs from my tap and allows me to shower. And perhaps there are big things, such as a new job.
By acknowledging what I am grateful for doesn’t mean I have to suppress feelings of sadness and loss that have arisen. Indeed, when we lost my father-in-law in April there was a sadness we couldn’t escape. It was very difficult to not be able to hug my mother-in-law and be with the family as we mourned. Like many, we have had to rely on other means for emotional connection and comfort. The many messages of love and support we received via social media were truly amazing and healing.
Now that we have offered gratitude for 2020 and honoured the various emotions we went through during the tumultuous year, let’s ready ourselves for 2021.
What about resolutions?
I’ve never been comfortable with the idea of resolutions. They seem so rule-based. To me, they are synonymous with something to be broken. The definition of resolution in the dictionary includes things like; the act of answering; the act of determining; something that is resolved; firmness of resolve. It sounds so definite and final. Didn’t we just come out of a year where we realized that we don’t have a lot of control over many things in life? Where things can change so drastically and so quickly? How can we set rules for ourselves that are so firm when the world around us is ever-changing? I would rather allow for some room to move. Room to flow with what life serves up to me. I am going to offer up another word – intention. Instead of resolutions this year, let’s set intentions.
One definition of intention states: what one intends to do or bring about.
I like the flexibility that the word intention offers. I also like that it encourages me to think a little deeper about what it is I want to do and bring about and why. Whenever I can ground myself in my ‘why’, I’m more likely to stay in tune with whatever action might best bring about the outcome I’m looking for.
Let’s use a typical example of a resolution and turn it into an intention. The resolution may go like this: I am going to lose ten pounds. When I turn this into an intention I’m going to ask myself – why do I want to lose ten pounds? The answer might be – I want to look better. Let’s keep going with the question – why do I want to look better? Because I feel better when I look better. Why do I want to feel better? When I feel better, I’m happier and have more energy to do the things I enjoy.
That is the outcome I want to achieve – I want to feel better, have more energy and be happier. This is what my focus should be on.
What is your intention for 2021?
Instead of fixating on ten pounds – a very specific goal that may or may not end up making me happier – I can start with my underlying goal. Because if I am fixated on losing a pound or two, I may inadvertently make myself unhappy in other ways and miss out on happy moments e.g. sharing a treat with a loved one. There are different things that can bring about happiness.
After I recognize my underlying goal I can go further and make plans for actions that might help me meet my goal. But I won’t lose sight of my overall goal. Perhaps the intention is – I want to take care of my body, feed it and exercise it so I will have the energy to do the things I enjoy. This gives me flexibility in how I take care of my body.
Flexibility is good, but I know the power of habits. Building healthy habits into my daily routine will be important if I am going to meet my goal. Something easy and achievable for me. My first small step will be to replace an afternoon snack with a cup of peppermint herbal tea. I will build on other beneficial habits once I master that one. My intention will remain the same – take care of my body so I feel good and have the energy to do the things I enjoy. Who knows, throughout my day I may discover other fun ways to get exercise and care for my body that I hadn’t thought of earlier. Flexibility is great that way.
That is why we should focus on gratitude and intentions, not resolutions.
What are your intentions for the new year?
Wishing you peace, joy and love for 2021!