Another year over, a new one just begun. I’ve been living with this song for weeks as the choir I sing with rehearses for Christmas. I don’t know about you but the line ‘another year over’ tends to leave me with a slight feeling of existential dread. It’s worse this year, as another decade is over and what have I done?
There are so many aspects of our lives to keep track of:
Career/business – did you meet your targets? Are you doing interesting work? Did you get promoted? Are you fulfilling your potential? Does your work have purpose?
Financial – did you earn enough? Save enough? Have you sorted out that pension yet?
Family/domestic – did you spend enough time with the people who matter most to you? Did you put things right when relationships went off track? Did you take your share of domestic responsibilities? Are those domestic projects (new kitchen, house move, big holiday) on track?
Health and well-being – did you do enough exercise? How’s your alcohol intake/step count/blood pressure? Are you eating healthily? Are you getting enough sleep? How’s that mindfulness practice going?
Pleasure – did you have enough fun? See people who make you happy? Spend enough time watching or playing sport, going to the theatre/concerts/circus/opera, reading books, listening to music or whatever else floats your boat? Have you got to the end of that Netflix series yet?
Community/activism – did you do enough for the causes that matter to you? Were you involved with your local community? How have you changed your lifestyle to help avert a climate catastrophe?
Personal development – Are you learning something new – a foreign language, musical instrument, dancing, cooking? Are you trying to manage some aspect of your life better – be tidier, control your temper, waste less time on social media? How’s it going?
I’m sure we all have times when we’re dissatisfied with some aspects of our lives and for some people or at some times, it can be more intense. So if you find that fleeting doubts about how well you’re doing creep in whilst you’re peeling sprouts, here are four tips to ward off existential angst.
1. Be kind to yourself
This is particularly important if you’ve had a bad year because of the stuff life throws at us from time to time – bereavement, illness, relationship breakdown, redundancy and so on. I hope next year is better for you.
But if simply looking at that list makes you feel overwhelmed or self-critical, be kind to yourself. (If you feel seriously depressed by it, talk to someone, get help). Sometimes people think that they’ll only achieve their goals if they keep up the pressure on themselves. If you have compassion for yourself, won’t you lose motivation and sit around eating ice-cream in your pyjamas in front of the TV? Actually, research by the foremost psychologist working in this area suggests the opposite. You wouldn’t encourage someone else to succeed by telling them they’re lazy, stupid and hopeless (if you do use this strategy, desist immediately; it doesn’t work). Why would you use it on yourself?
2. Be realistic
I’m not suggesting that you give up your ambitions or that you shouldn’t aim high. But honestly, you can’t have it all. No one can. One Silicon Valley author suggests picking three from this list and letting the other two fall by the way side: work, sleep, family, fitness, or friends. Let’s be honest, what she means is pick work and two of the others. She’s Randi Zuckerberg, who had a senior role in her brother Mark’s company – Facebook. She knows a thing or two about over-achieving at work. Most of us are not in that league and would probably like a bit more balance in our lives. Notice that hobbies, community, activism and personal development don’t even make her list of things to rule out. But the general principle still applies: you can’t fit everything in, so pick the things that matter most to you.
I’ve talked here before about the idea of 168 hours as your time budget for the week. That’s the limit of what you can spend. The trouble is that many of us think we have an unlimited overdraft. Surely there’ll be a bit more time from somewhere? Except there isn’t, which is why we can’t do everything.
3. Don’t compare yourself to others
It’s human nature to compare yourself to others. When you’re not feeling great about what you’ve achieved, it’s very easy to look around and assume that everyone else is doing better than you. Actually there is a huge amount of confirmation bias involved in this. It’s unlikely that you’ll compare yourself with someone struggling to make it to Christmas on Universal Credit. No, you’ll look at social media posts of colleagues who’ve been promoted, friends whose lives seem to be non-stop cocktail parties or (for the more spiritually inclined) people who are just back from a meditation retreat in Nepal, and conclude that they’re doing life better than you.
Probably the single most useful thing you can do for your mental well-being is to stop comparing an insider’s view of your own life, in all its messy complexity, with an outsider’s view of someone else’s seemingly perfect life. If you do find yourself in the grip of envy, particularly at work, this article from my series on managing emotion in the workplace might help.
4. Celebrate the positives
If you’ve had a great year, celebrate. It saddens me when some of my clients brush aside their successes. “Sure I got that project in on time but I was just doing what was expected of me. It’s nothing to shout about”. Often these people combine a strong work ethic with a high level of modesty. These can be great attributes but if a reluctance to blow your own trumpet means you can’t even allow yourself to feel a warm glow of pride privately, you’re doing yourself no favours.
If you haven’t had such a great year, look for the things you can be proud of or grateful for. We’re hardwired to notice negative events because they’re threats. It takes conscious effort to to pay attention to the positives, but it’s worth it. It makes us happier. I recently heard a neuroscientist suggest that consciously focusing on something positive for 15 seconds, six times a day, can help you shift to a more positive mindset. If you think you can bear 90 seconds of happiness a day, give it a go.
So there you go, four ways of warding off end of year/decade existential angst. That doesn’t mean that you might not want to make changes next year, but you’re more likely to succeed if you start off feeling OK about yourself.
Next month, I’ll look at how to have more chance of making those changes stick. In the meantime, have a lovely Christmas and be sure to grab that opportunity to eat ice-cream in your pyjamas in front of the TV. Surely it’s what Boxing Day is for.
Jim, the photographer