New Year – New You! shout the various magazine titles.
The midnight bells still chiming in the new year when it begins: The multitude of articles, blogs, cover stories and posts on detoxing, juicing, weight loss, ‘dry’ January and much ado about betterment: better hair, better skin, better clothes, better relationships, better sex, better gadgets, better homes, better careers, better meditation(!)… the start of a new year heralds an almost hysterical onslaught of reinvention of an-apparently-previously-inadequate-self. You, say the aforementioned articles et al., can transform yourself into a slimmer, fitter, healthier, sexier, cleverer, happier and all-round more sparkly version of you.
Now, don’t get me wrong. I’m not bashing appreciating and making the most of yourself, being fit and healthy, having good relationships or seeking meaningful new activities or work. As someone who has also spent the past two decades researching mental health, wellbeing and happiness, I too am always interested in what makes us feel ‘well’ in the most holistic sense of the word. Furthermore, I’m certainly not immune to embarking on a ‘new-year-health MOT’ after indulging in one-too-many chocolates over the festive period. I too, have hoisted myself from that what-day-is-it-and-what-am-I-supposed-to-be-doing between Christmas and New Year limbo on a quest to jump into January with goals, plans and visions of a version of ‘me’ more sparkly than the tinsel I was about to take down. No sooner have the bells announced a new year and I too have parted company with a fair few pounds on juicers, pedometers, smoothie-makers, self-help books, gym subscriptions, gym clothes for aforementioned-now-I’m-a-gym-bunny too! regimes, running magazines, recipe books, yoga mats, mini trampolines, kettlebells, meditation CDs and many other New You! inspired tools to transform myself into an apparently Better Person.
Although I believe there’s nothing essentially wrong with using the new year to kick-start a health and fitness routine, or truly trying to improve areas of your life which cause you unhappiness, there’s something in the plethora of competing voices out there proclaiming to help us to become better versions of ourselves which doesn’t feel quite right. Over the years, I’ve found that the more saturated we become with ideas of ‘betterment’ and the more information-overloaded our lives are, the less content we actually are with ourselves. A little peek on Instagram for ‘healthy inspiration’ (you too can look like me! just follow my 30-day plan – £99 special offer today only!) ends up, half a wasted hour later, in us feeling inferior, duller, drabber, podgier, less sexy, less successful and decidedly less sparkly than before. And yes, we all know about filters. We know social media isn’t real life…but we still do it. We still compare. We still, three weeks into January, on ‘Blue Monday’, sit feeling cold, uninspired, hungry, inadequate, tired and nipping to the Co-Op, coat over our pyjamas for a oh-sod-it giant bar of Dairy Milk and a bottle of Pinot. Then we feel guilty. Another New Year! New You! failed again before February. (Sincere congratulations, by the way, if this doesn’t happen to you, or if you have never fallen into the media-hyped trap of New Year! New You! betterment in the first place).
So why do (at least a fair few of us) do it? If you’ve read your way through my previous wafflings, you may have picked up on how I have a thing for waggling a finger of blame at social media, and I’d extend that to television, advertising, unquestioning consumerism and the way Those Who Pull The (Purse) Strings make us feel anxious, fearful and inadequate with who we presently are. So, is there an alternative? Does rejecting the New Year! New You! hysterics mean snuggling deeper into your duvet, buying in more chocolate and binge-watching Netflix until the clocks go forward and the lambs are all a-skippy in the daffodils? Well, yes…and no. I’m of the belief that this Reinvention of Self that seems to fall upon us each new year can be problematic in two ways:
Firstly, from a wellbeing/self-care perspective, perhaps January isn’t the best time for throwing ourselves into radically new routines of reinvention. The days are short, dark, nippy and the twinkly, cheerful festive lights of December have been packed up and put away. Summer seems impossibly far, and the prospect of miserably puffing our way around the dark, cold, damp streets in the morning/evening and detoxing on cold salads and fibre-absent juices doesn’t do much to fill us with January joy. Gyms may offer some artificial warmth and light, but it can be a big bite into our just-after-Christmas finances and not all of us are fond of the gym for a start/introverted/prefer exercising outdoors etc. Sufferers of Seasonal Affective Disorder (raises her hand) may find it particularly hard to stay awake or have the physical or mental energy to fling themselves into media-prescribed physical, emotional and spiritual ideals of ‘betterment’.
Secondly, from a more ‘greater good’ standpoint, there is arguably a growing focus on the ‘internal gaze’, perpetuated perhaps by the current selfie-orientated culture that seems to emphasise an egoistic preoccupation with gratifying our own needs and desires. This focus seems to be exacerbated and exaggerated even more at the start of a new year, where we turn out gaze inwards, analyse ourselves, reflect, introspect and ask how can I be improved, enhanced and bettered? Whilst a degree of self-improvement is undoubtedly beneficial and helpful, are we at risk as a society of becoming too focused on the Self to the detriment of the many forms of the Other? As Thomas Joiner (2017) points out in his timely analysis of the ‘corruption of mindfulness’, this growing societal acceptance of the inward gaze and narcissism is arguably creating a culture of self-importance and self-promotion over more truly mindful, conscious and compassionate awareness and kindness towards all beings and the world itself.
So, what can be done? It’s certainly not easy to avoid or not be influenced by the way different forms of media and news vie for our attention, taking advantage of our vulnerabilities and insecurities and capitalising on the new year ethos of Betterment of the Self. Yet, perhaps by simply pausing and recognising this is the first step.
Secondly, I’d suggest that in terms of our own wellbeing, we can, if we choose, make subtle, gentle sustainable adjustments to our lives that last not only until February, but for the entire year to come. Adjusting slowly to the ebb and flow of the seasons, to a more conscious and compassionate, grateful lifestyle that works for you. Ultimately, I’d suggest that the opportunities that a new year presents are not about aspiring to be an Instagramed, filtered version of someone else, or reacting to bandwagon-jumping, media-hyping and social-media noise that can make us feel like we’re not ok and need changing. Instead, perhaps the dawn of a new year is an opportunity to go kindly out into the world and reconnect gently with what really matters. To go slowly, peacefully, gratefully and openly. To turn off the computer and stroll in the woods; stand by a riverbank; let that driver out in front of you; mouth a sincere thank you when someone does the same for you; rescue that trapped fly; start a Monday morning work email with a genuine how are you? before launching into the business of the day; smile at the passing stranger in the street; move an at-risk-of-being-squashed snail from harm’s way when out jogging; feed the birds – not just the little ones; spend time alone; spend time with loved ones; spend time doing the simple, sustainable things that spark joy. Go quietly, gently, compassionately, contentedly and peacefully into 2018 – I wish you a truly happy new year to come.
“Our task must be to free ourselves... by widening our circle of compassion to embrace all living creatures and the whole of nature and its beauty.”
This article was first published in the January 2018 edition of the Tyne Valley Express magazine: http://www.tynevalleyexpress.co.uk/magazine/