Many people use the changing of one calendar-year to the next as an opportunity to both reflect on the year we leave behind, as well as to contemplate what the coming 12-months have in store. The New Year occurs very soon after the Winter Solstice, so those of us in the northern hemisphere get to look forward to progressively longer days, while anticipating warmer temperatures on the horizon. This period of brighter-days-ahead is a fitting setting for us to start anew, with a clean slate, full of potential, while putting any challenges of the recent past behind us. Various cultures around the world navigate this with their own unique flavor, with a broad array of different traditions that they engage as they welcome a new year. Some examples include wearing white, carrying empty suitcases with beans in your pocket, setting off fireworks, and, of course, watching a ball drop. Themes from the various activities are hopes for good luck, prosperity, travel and longevity. Similarly, our tradition of making New Year’s resolutions attempts to identify those things specific to our lives that we hope will lead to an upcoming year of positivity, growth and improvement.
Any process that connects us to a sense of hope can be tremendously beneficial for our mental wellness. Regularly in mental health work, assessing a person’s level of hope is a fundamental and critical pillar in any plan for healing and recovery. There is a full body of research-evidence demonstrating the profound impact hope has on our mental health. Hope has been shown to result in improved recovery across the range of mental illness. Anxiety, depression, trauma and psychotic disorders all have better response to treatment for those who are hopeful. We know hope is associated with improved coping skills, as well as increased resilience. Those who are hopeful are more likely to engage in healthy behaviors, and result in an overall improved sense of well-being. Additionally, we know that hope is a protective factor whenever someone is experiencing suicidal thought or engaging in negative, self-deprecating behavior. Other findings show people with higher levels of hope tend to more readily problem-solve in order to reach their goals, and to better manage setbacks and challenges they may encounter.
With all of these known benefits, it makes sense that mental health professionals focus on supporting the development and reinforcement of hope as part of any treatment that we are providing to our clients and patients. There are numerous approaches that might be taken, but essential to all of them is the need to develop a plan, and then to figure out a way to put that plan into action. When discussing this with my patients, I describe this as necessary exercise for our mental health. Just like physical fitness, our emotional well-being benefits from a routine regularly attending to and nurturing activities that promote health. The more we practice, the better get at it.
The act of making a resolution for improvement or change requires us to dig deep and access some level of hope that there is the possibility that the resolution can actualize. This can be challenging for some, particularly anyone who has experienced loss, or trauma, or who have long-struggled with mental health issues, as they can fear reinforcement of negative or hurtful feelings should they
experience “yet another New Year’s resolution going unfulfilled.” While it is true that many resolutions go unfulfilled each year, the mental health benefits come from simply connecting with hope, not the eventual outcome. For everyone, having the hope in the first place achieves one of the most important mental wellness goals of the process, so there can be success, regardless of whether or not we fulfill the plans. So as the year 2023 begins, consider embracing the tradition of making New Year’s resolutions with awareness of its potential positive impact on our mental health fitness.
Karl Jeffries is Chief Medical Officer at the Brattleboro Retreat