At the beginning of each year, many people make promises to either do or do nothing to improve their lives in some way. The fresh start of a new year is magically equated with a fresh start in life and often imbued with renewed hope that things will get better this year.
As we enter 2022, after two years of living with COVID-19, this hope may be stronger than usual.
The effects of the pandemic have ranged from death and other negative effects on physical and mental health, to huge changes in employment, income, travel, leisure and the ability to socialize. The effect on individuals has varied considerably, depending on how their lives were in advance, how much it has affected them personally and their own resilience.
Based on discussions with colleagues and patients, we can see decisions driven by loss, guilt, and anger, plus a rush with common types of self-improvement decisions and a greater drive for overall life change.
How we respond to the shock of the pandemic depends in part on our resilience: the ability to adapt well to adversity, trauma, tragedy, threats, or significant sources of stress. It involves “bouncing back” from difficult experiences, and it can also involve personal growth.
People who have lost loved ones to COVID may react with New Year’s resolutions, but they may take positive or negative forms.
Positive decisions can be commitments to honor the deceased in some way, or to live well because your loved one cannot. A pact or promise made with or to a deceased loved one to “live life better” can be a strong, positive motivator to change bad health habits such as smoking, excessive drinking or gambling, although professional help is advisable to ensure safe and lasting change.
Negative decisions, often driven by strong feelings of anger and despair, can be promises of seeking revenge or punishing those who may seem responsible for the death of their relatives or friend.
“Revenge decisions” are usually not helpful adjustments and can stem from a sense of guilt that arises from not being able to save their loved one or spend time with them.
Individuals who survived a COVID infection while a relative did not experience particularly strong feelings of guilt in particular.
Guilt-driven decisions are driven by strong emotions. They are likely to be realized in some form during the year when the driving emotions hopefully become less intense.
Since the virus has posed a major health risk, it would make sense for more people than ever to choose the new year to decide to improve their own health.
Quitting smoking is a very common New Year’s resolution, and it seems even more sensible than usual in the midst of a global pandemic of a virus that mainly attacks the airways. However, as many people have found out in the past, it is very difficult to give up cigarettes and often requires considerable planning and help to succeed.
While the pandemic may have made the desire for change stronger, it does not magically make decisions easier. The same goes for decisions to change the use of alcohol or other drugs, which would also benefit from planning and professional help.
Weight loss will be followed by fatigue and constant tiredness. The famous “COVID kilos” will undoubtedly make more people than usual decide to lose weight in 2022.
Crash diets are common, but are often abandoned in February. Careful eating and an exercise plan that accompanies the decision will make it more likely to succeed.
While COVID is likely to provide an added benefit to ordinary decisions, we are also likely to see an increase in decisions for overall “lifestyle change”. Many people’s attitudes towards work and family have changed dramatically over the last two years due to travel restrictions, work or study from home and poor socialization with those outside our immediate family.
This hugely significant change in our lifestyle has caused many people to reconsider their future.
Many have enjoyed spending time with family and are now rethinking their work-life balance. Discovering that it is possible to work from home has led many people to reconsider their career opportunities as they move into 2022.
Some experts predict a post-pandemic labor emigration, called the “major resignation,” in which millions of people, from frontline workers to senior executives, may resign from their jobs.
According to recent surveys from Microsoft, more than 40 percent of the global workforce is considering leaving their employers. This trend is expected to be repeated in various industries in the US, UK and Europe. In Australia, this trend is not clear yet, but nonetheless, a New Year’s resolution may be to determine a different type of employment for 2022 and beyond.
Two roads to 2022
COVID-19 has left most of us drained and on guard for the future. Many people thought the pandemic would end in 2020, but 2021 brought more infections, shutdowns, and restrictions.
In times of trauma where the future is uncertain, there can be a polarization of behavior. Some people take a “devil may worry, live for now” attitude to life, with greater risk-taking. Others take the opposite view and exercise extreme caution, further narrowing their existence.
Both groups can make New Year’s resolutions that suit their approach to life.
Jayashri Kulkarni is Professor of Psychiatry at Monash University. This piece first appeared on The Conversation.