The ancient Babylonians are said to have been the first to make New Year's resolutions, some 4000 years ago. They were also the first to hold recorded celebrations in honour of the new year, though for them the year began not in January but in mid-March, when the crops were planted. They also made promises to the gods to pay their debts and return any borrowed objects. These promises can be considered the forerunners of our New Year's resolutions.
Giving yourself time to explore your assumptions and the underlying workings of your mind, may actually be just what you need for happiness this coming year.
In many ways, we continue this year-end practice of reflection, taking stock and thinking of what we want from the coming year. Oftentimes this is an emotional exercise, a recounting of previous experiences, both good and bad—perhaps you had a stressful year with ill health, strained relationships, a work upset or you may be coming off a year-long high of special events like marriage or a long-overdue holiday. Either way, when we make resolutions for the new year, we rarely think about why we are thinking or feeling a certain way, and what's prompting us towards setting one long-term goal over another.
Put more simply, what lies below the surface of our wants?
The neocortex in our brain is located in the front of the head between the temples. It receives and stores information for making decisions and remembering things. It is involved in many higher functions such as sensory perception, generation of motor commands, spatial reasoning, conscious thoughts, thinking and awareness, and in humans, language. The neocortex also helps parcel out actions and responses to the environment or given situations.
This is also the seat of metacognition. The root word "meta", means "beyond", and metacognition is defined as "cognition about cognition" – in other words, "thinking about thinking", or "knowing about knowing".
In our fast-paced lives, we rarely use this ability, even though it has long been theorised that this is an important skill. Jumbled up in our thoughts and emotions that arise from experiences, are our latent assumptions about the world, ourselves and how we perceive ourselves in the world. Giving yourself time to explore these assumptions and the underlying workings of your mind, may actually be just what you need for happiness this coming year.
Start small and think about your actions, reactions, thoughts and feelings in daily experiences and interactions: how you treat people, how you empathise in certain situations, how and why you feel gratitude. Perhaps, even think about whether you feel gratitude.
You will be surprised at how this small exercise carried out daily could help you appreciate yourself, your life and the joys around you more and lead you to a life of mindful living. Mindfulness is the practice of purposely focusing your attention on the present moment without judgment. It has its roots in Buddhism, but most religions include some type of similar prayer or meditation technique.
Mindfulness helps shift your preoccupation with thought toward an appreciation of the moment, physical and emotional sensations, and brings a larger perspective on life. It calms and focuses you, making you more self-aware in the process.
Think about what you focus on and then choose what you 'want' to focus on. Let that be the one change you bring in this year.
Maybe your goal doesn't have to be to lose a certain amount of weight in the coming year—maybe it can be something simpler like enjoying a morning walk with your partner or sharing healthy recipes with your mum that you can try out at home! In our daily lives, we all experience unhealthy thought processes and thinking patterns—one need not have a clinically diagnosed mental health disorder to encounter this. Let this be the year that you unlock these thought processes and underlying thought patterns. Become aware of who you are, your thoughts and feelings. This is emotional intelligence, and it helps us to turn intention into action, to make informed decisions about the things that matter most to us, and to connect to others in productive and nurturing ways.
The American historian, playright and activist Howard Zinn sums it up remarkably:
"To be hopeful in bad times is not just foolishly romantic. It is based on the fact that human history is a history not only of cruelty, but also of compassion, sacrifice, courage, kindness. What we choose to emphasize in this complex history will determine our lives. If we see only the worst, it destroys our capacity to do something. If we remember those times and places—and there are so many—where people have behaved magnificently, this gives us the energy to act, and at least the possibility of sending this spinning top of a world in a different direction.
And if we do act, in however small a way, we don't have to wait for some grand utopian future. The future is an infinite succession of presents, and to live now as we think human beings should live, in defiance of all that is bad around us, is itself a marvellous victory."
Think about what you focus on and then choose what you want to focus on. Let that be the one change you bring in this year.