The festive season's final act has many of us wishing one another a happy New Year. For 2021, however, happiness seems like a big ask. With the pandemic still threatening our wellbeing, we would be wise to temper our optimism. Perhaps instead, we might wish each other a less stressful New Year, or a resilient one.
For many people, the first month of the new year typically ends in disappointment anyway. For those who make new year's resolutions, taking a brave step towards a better self, the vast majority fail miserably. A study exploring resolution-keeping published in the Journal of Substance Abuse found that only 19 per cent of resolution-makers maintained their pledges after two years. The majority are broken within the first few weeks.
The first month of the new year is also home to the mythical "Blue Monday", supposedly the most miserable day of the year. The idea of Blue Monday grew out of a publicity stunt initiated by Sky Travel, a British travel company. Enlisting the services of a psychologist, Cliff Arnall, a formula was devised to predict the UK's unhappiest day of the year. Based on a dubious algorithm, factoring in things like the first day back to work, the UK weather and consumer debt levels, Blue Monday was born. This year it is predicted to fall on January 20.
Blue Monday doesn't apply to the UAE, though. Monday isn't the start of the week, and January weather is blissful. Perhaps the whole Blue Monday idea is more nonsense than it is behavioural science – a gimmicky marketing ploy encouraging Britons to take winter-sun vacations. To those in the UK currently experiencing tier 4 lockdowns and travel restrictions, sun, sea and sand will seem like a very distant prospect.
The validity of Blue Monday aside, Jan 2021 is likely to be a difficult month for many of us. The excess deaths associated with Covid-19 will mean that, globally, more people than usual are grieving. There will also be millions more facing financial hardships related to our necessary responses to the pandemic. Furthermore, throughout January at least, uncertainty will continue to shroud many of the things we once took for-granted: travel, education and family gatherings, to mention a few. Uncertainty makes us anxious, not happy.
Wishing resilience, rather than happiness, on each other for 2021, seems like a good idea. Where happiness often depends on external events, resilience is a trait we can personally cultivate. Enhancing our resilience won't stop bad things from happening and, naturally, we will still feel down. Resilience, however, will help us bounce back sooner. Similarly, things will continue to anger us, and our anger may well be justified.
Resilience, however, will allow us to rapidly return to pre-anger levels of rationality. Once we have a level head, we can decide what action – if any – is wisest and kindest. Reacting in anger is infamous for making bad situations worse. The same is true for anxiety. Fear, worry and panic will still arise. However, resilience can help us weather their storm without us striving to avoid, escape or control events. Our attempts to "fix" anxiety are often more problematic than the unpleasant emotion itself.
The research evidence in support of trait resilience as a promoter of wellbeing is compelling. A study published in the Journal of Personality and Individual Differences in 2015 reviewed 60 earlier studies exploring the links between resilience and mental health. Resilience was unequivocally associated with improved psychological wellbeing, particularly so among people who were actually facing adversity at the time. This seems like common sense to me. Those who can cope more effectively with adversity are more likely to flourish, thrive and evade the mental traps that lead us on the downward spiral towards despair.
So how do we enhance our resilience? One way is through mindfulness meditation practices. Mindfulness has boomed over the past decade, primarily because of the scientific evidence supporting its effectiveness in reducing chronic stress and preventing relapse in depression. However, when we look closer at how these interventions work – the mechanisms of change – we see that mindfulness, at least in part, works by promoting resilience.
Rather than just wishing resilience upon people, I would like to see more well-trained and well-credentialed mindfulness practitioners, offering evidence-based programmes for stress reduction and cognitive therapy, take up their work in the UAE and the wider region.
I emphasise structure, training and credentials as there are individuals out there peddling pseudo-mindfulness. These mindfulness-flavoured experiences, at best, offer little more than a temporary feel-good placebo. As the poet Rumi is said to have written: "Fake gold only exists because there is such a thing as real gold".
Authentic, evidence-based mindfulness programmes exist and can be offered in the clinic, workplace or classroom. This year, I led an eight-week mindfulness-based stress reduction programme online. It had its challenges, but I still witnessed resilience blooming and saw what a critical role it will play in helping us bounce back from everything 2020 threw at us.
Justin Thomas is a professor of psychology at Zayed University and a columnist for The National