Five Key Lessons I learnt in 2021

Like many people around the world, I am still in a state of bewilderment that it’s actually 2022. It seems only three weeks ago it was 2019 and we were moseying on through our days, blissfully unaware of the impending arrival of a pandemic that would upend our lives. It is certainly reasonable to dismiss the previous twelve months as forgettable, tumultuous and overwhelmingly terrible. For many, 2021 was characterised by isolation, uncertainty, illness and restrictions. For me, I ended the year in hotel quarantine – spending Christmas facetiming my boy friend, grandparents and other family members. Despite the ostensibly sad ending, I had an abundance of fantastic moments last year, and there was so much learning and growth experienced that I have an immense amount of gratitude for the year that I had. It’s easy to reflect upon the last twelve months with a negative lens, but perhaps in hindsight you too can relate to the following key things I learnt throughout the year.

The importance of the simple, everyday behaviours in shaping your life

I used to roll my eyes at menial, everyday tasks like cleaning the dishes, vacuuming the house or doing the grocery shopping. Every time I’d be enduring one of these tasks, my focus would be on what I would do as soon as I had finished. It was common for me to overlook the importance of the simple habits and routines that were the very moments that made up my life. Rather than immersing ourselves in the present, we often focus on the grand moments and events – the parties, nights out, movie and dinner dates, the holidays, etc. This year I learnt that the course of our lives and overall happiness levels, are significantly shaped by the everyday moments and behaviours. It might not seem that important to spend a few hours each day scrolling on our phone, but it’s important to acknowledge how much of our lives we are wasting on a device that offers very little in return, as well as the deleterious effects that doing nothing has on our motivation and overall happiness levels. Equally, it’s easy to dismiss boring and menial tasks like washing the dishes as irrelevant. But the very act of doing, no matter how mundane the task is, invokes a surprising sense of fulfilment that we don’t notice until we are no longer able to engage in normal and everyday tasks.

Throughout 2021, I became acutely aware of the improvements in my mood after I engaged in productive tasks that seemed somewhat insignificant – such as cleaning the kitchen, learning Spanish on Duo lingo, or washing my car. It’s difficult to say what exactly the catalyst was behind this light-bulb moment of understanding, and exactly when the realisation occurred is hard to say. Perhaps the limited options we had to entertain ourselves during extended lockdowns, when all we could do were home-workouts, read books, watch TV and scroll endlessly on social media, is what prompted a re-evaluation of my life. We didn’t have a lot of distractions thrust upon us in 2021, and we were often required to simply sit with our thoughts and analyse our unsettled feelings spurred upon by anxiety and plain old boredom. In this way, I simply had more time to focus on the everyday tasks I was doing, and to appreciate the little routines of normality embedded in everyday life that I had previously taken for granted. Leaving behind the impetus for my gratitude towards the mundane moments and tasks, this awareness of our feelings before and after particular events is crucial for motivating and directing future behaviour, as well as shaping the happiness we feel throughout the days, weeks and years of our lives.

In summary, a key thing I learnt in 2021 is that there is immense utility in simply doing, no matter how innocuous, frivolous or insignificant the behaviour or task may seem.

Happiness can often require hard-work and overlooking immediate desires

On a similar vein to my first takeaway of 2021, I also learnt that happiness is often the result of the consistent application of hard-work. To achieve a state of contentment on a regular basis (and being devoid of a clinically significant mental health disorder), it often requires us to disregard our immediate desires and to look at the overall picture and outcome of our actions. This means choosing behaviours that don’t give you instant gratification and pleasure in the moment, and that seem far less appealing, in exchange for feeling an enduring sense of contentment. For example, when we wake up at 5am and go for a walk instead of snoozing our alarm, it can feel much more tempting to remain in the comfort of our cosy and warm blanket, and drifting back to sleep will certain give you instant pleasure. But jumping out of bed in the freezing cold and walking in near-darkness will confer feelings of accomplishment and contentment in the long-run. You will feel proud of yourself for waking up early and nourishing your body with exercise, and you may even find enjoyment in listening to your favourite music or podcasts. Similarly, rather than scrolling lazily on your phone which is incredibly easy, you might choose to read a thought-provoking and insightful novel that opens your mind and gives you a new perspective. One option benefits you greatly whilst the other often makes you feel regretful, lazy and sluggish.

Other examples of delaying our reward system and choosing what’s best for us in the long-run is devoting our time to preparing home-cooked meals instead of opening up an app on our phone and ordering fast-food through a delivery service. The former option requires far more work and the food may not taste as good (in the case of Guzman-y-gomez, it definitely won’t taste as good), but you will feel pleased with yourself for making something that is healthier for you, and for using your time in a productive way. You might also commit to attending events and gatherings with friends who’s company you ultimately enjoy, even when your social-anxiety causes your stomach to churn uncomfortably. It’s far too easy to remain at home in your world and avoid the often painful feeling of social anxiety, but as your historical experience will tell you, going to see friends and having shared experiences with them will cause you to feel happier in the long-run.

Instead of listening to what we think we want to do in the moment, happiness often requires us to overlook what will cause us immediate pleasure or cessation of short-term anxiety – and focus on what will benefit us and be the most rewarding decision in the long-run.

It’s crucial that you pay attention to the positive people in your life

This year I realised how important it is to surround ourselves with people who are ultimately positive and uplifting, and who don’t spend their time complaining and whinging. It’s normal to need to vent from time to time, and there’s situations where people can be negative in a humorous way (See: George Costanza). However, the toxic influence that a consistently pessimistic person can have should not be overlooked. You often don’t realise how crappy they can make you feel until you assess your throughts and feelings before and after hanging out with them. You might feel grumpy or impatient after being in their presence, and inadvertantly snap at your partner, not realising that it was your environment that put you in this low mood. On the other side of the coin, notice the people in your life who are cheerful, positive and uplifting – who radiate a sense of vibrance and positive energy. We often mirror the atmosphere of those around us, and it’s easy to forget the importance of hanging around nice, thoughtful and genuinely positive people.

Its equally important to be mindful of the energy you are releasing into the world and space around you. I’ve learnt to try and be a force of positivity, helpfulness and kindness as much as possible. As Maya Angelou said – “People will forget what you said, they will forget what you did – but they will never forget how you made them feel”. It’s time to think about what type of mark you want to leave on the people around you. Whilst it’s unreasonable to expect yourself to be a beacon of positivity every moment of your life and your friends might think you’ve joined some strange wellness cult, the very fact that you try and improve the energy you project is what matters.

Pain and uncertainty will always be apart of your life – but good things are just around the corner

It is important to focus as much as we can on living in the present moment and not worrying about what might eventuate. It is equally important to accept that all moments, good and bad, will eventually pass and fade into non-existence. On this basis, we must let go of our attachment to external factors, events and things. I don’t mean that we should lose all feeling and connection with living and non-living things, but rather our very happiness and existence should not depend upon the presence of other things. We can be truly appreciative and love other people, whilst simultaneously accepting that your existence isn’t dependent on theirs.

Whilst it can seem daunting to realise that nothing is permanent, it is also comforting to be equipped with the irrefutable truth that all terrible experiences and feelings will pass. This is something I learnt and reminded myself of during sad times in 2021, and it certainly helped me persevere through the pandemic. When I was stuck in hotel quarantine and feeling a sense of anxiety about missing Christmas and about being covid-positive, I thought to myself how startling that only hours before I was in the midst of a great holiday and feeling fantastic. It made me acutely aware of the fleeting nature of our feelings and moments. But if wonderful moments like that could pass me by in an instant, I reminded myself that the same applies to terrible moments. Those too will always pass. It was hardly a ground-breaking realisation for most people, but it was utterly liberating and truly helped me get through the experience.

Regrets are a waste of time and energy

It is human nature to ruminate on our past decisions and mistakes, focussing on the possibility of the different choices we could have made and how our lives would’ve panned out “better” had we chosen these different paths. For example, if I had chosen to pursue a career as a professional tennis player, I could’ve been much happier than I am now. I could have been travelling the world and experiencing great success and admiration from other people. This line of thinking is flawed. First of all, we have absolutely no idea how our lives could’ve panned out had we made different decisions. Had we chosen to purchase Apple shares 40 years ago and subsequently experience considerable wealth, we might presume we would be far happier and more successful than we are now. But this is simply not a fact. Rather than experiecing a better life, we could’ve developed a drug addiction, or lost important friendships that mean so much to you now, or been in a horrific car accient. We have no way of knowing and I cannot think of a greater waste of time than imagining how our lives wouldve been different had we made different choices.

Rather than focussing on all our previous decisions and living in a state of immense regret, there is far more utility in expressing appreciation for all the things we have in our life now. There’s simply no way of determining how your life could have panned out had you chosen alternative paths. It may well be that the choices you have made have lead you to the best possible version of your life. It sounds like I am only moments away from booking in a “No Ragrats” tattoo with my local tattoo artist, but I think it’s critical that we realise that life and all the moments contained within are precious, scary, wonderful and transient. If our goal is to live as enriched and fulfilling life as we can, we must focus on our appreciation of everything we have now, and relinquish the hold that our past has on us.

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