2021, Are You Kidding Me?

It’s been an interesting start to the new year, but don’t give up just yet.

Posted Jan 11, 2021 | Reviewed by Kaja Perina

 Olya Kobruseva/Pexels
Source: Olya Kobruseva/Pexels

Of all the years people couldn’t wait to see the back of, 2020 probably takes the prize, especially in the category of, "Thank God that’s all over.” However, 2021 seems to be carrying on in a very similar vein. And why wouldn’t it? The calendar is an arbitrary construct, after all. But we human beings set a lot of stock in dates. As one year came to a close and another one began, many of us were looking for a fresh start but, sadly, that just didn’t happen. Instead, we got more lockdowns, mutant virus strains, and attacks on democracy—and we’re not even two weeks in yet. One can’t help but wonder, not only what’s next, but also how we are going to deal with it going forwards.

A traditional New Year’s greeting is to wish someone health and prosperity for the new year. It’s a good greeting but as 2021 continues to unfold, instead, I wish you resilience, determination, optimism, and hope. 

Resilience is a cornerstone of not only most forms of psychotherapy (which focus on mental illness) but also of positive psychology (which focuses on mental wellness).

As a rational emotive behaviour therapist (REBT) I work a lot in this area. REBT says it’s not the events in life that disturb you, but what you tell yourself about those events that disturb you. This means nothing makes you anxious, or angry, or depressed and nothing drives you to drink, drugs, or distraction. It’s your interpretation of events and situations that does all that.

It’s not to say that when stuff happens, it doesn’t have an influence, because it does. Life does get tough, challenging, difficult, and downright nasty sometimes. But, even in the face of adversity, you can still remain in control, or regain control if you think you’ve lost it, by looking at what it is you’re telling yourself.

Key REBT principles involve swapping rigid demands (such as 2021 has got to be better than last year, or else!) for flexible preferences (I hope 2021 is better than last year, but sadly there’s nothing to say it has to be, for instance). It also recommends keeping a sense of perspective instead of blowing things out of proportion or magnifying their difficulty. This means seeing things as bad, but not awful, instead of as an end-of-the-world catastrophe. And seeing life’s adversities as difficult but bearable things as opposed to outright unbearable things. When you adopt principles such as these, you won’t necessarily enjoy what’s going on (and you don’t have to) but you will develop more resilience in the face of them. 

When you believe things to be awful and unbearable, obstacles and events can seem insurmountable, endless, and so much bigger than they are. Unhealthy coping strategies tend to creep in. You can become hopeless, depressed, and anxious. But, when you see things as they are and believe that no matter how difficult they are, that you have coped, are coping, and will continue to cope, you cut things down to size and, in so doing, you will feel empowered. You will develop more healthy and rational coping strategies. Things will feel temporary instead of permanent. You may feel down maybe, but not depressed; worried for sure, but not anxious. 

These concepts and attitudes are fine in and of themselves. They will help you to feel not anxious and not depressed in the face of challenging situations. 

REBT gives you the tools to cope with whatever life throws at you which, to positive psychology, is the very definition of resilience. But a person with resilience is also able to identify and use other strengths and resources, such as hope, optimism, and self-efficacy, to help them.

Hope is a character strength in positive psychology. That is, a trait or capacity for thinking, feeling, and acting in a way that is beneficial to yourself and others. People with hope expect the best from the future, even if the present is not ideal; and they work towards achieving it. They believe a good future is something that can be brought about. They are optimistic in that they look for favourable outcomes, and they are self-efficacious in that they know they can exert some kind of influence over at least some of those outcomes.

This is important. Some people have what is known as an external locus of control. They often feel powerless, that their lives are almost entirely shaped by external forces that are beyond their sphere of influence. Others, however, have an internal locus of control. These people believe that most events are primarily the result of their own actions. These ‘loci of control’ were first proposed by psychologist Julian B Rotter in 1954 and are an aspect of personality psychology.

The years, and the events within them, may not be under your control, but how you react to them are. Do you see yourself as a victim of unfortunate circumstances or a survivor of them? Which one would you like to be?

Resilience, hope, optimism, and self-efficacy are all closely correlated with increased happiness and life satisfaction levels we well as with positive life outcomes such as increased life expectancy, better physical and mental health, greater recovery rates from things such as heart operations, and even improved performance at work and in sports.

So, even though it’s not been the best start to the year, and no matter what the rest of it brings, I wish you all of the above and more.