The New Year is almost upon us, and January beckons.
The month is named for Janus – the Roman god associated with arches, entrances and beginnings. His sculpted head adorned many ancient doorways – with its two faces, one looking back, the other forward.
I know at this time of year many people are tempted to reflect on the previous 12 months. Newspapers and magazines draw up lists of the best books, TV and films of 2021. And Spotify tells us what we’ve personally been listening to most over the year.
But there are also less enjoyable forms of recalling the old year too – we ruminate on mistakes and missed opportunities, and often end the year beating ourselves up.
So I want to make a case for concentrating on that forward-looking face of Janus – and talk about what my friend the Wharton psychologist Katy Milkman calls “The Fresh Start Effect”.
Katy says that we humans are “consummate optimists”, perhaps even to a fault. “Actually, I should say we are constantly over-optimists. We’re overconfident.”
We are ever hopeful. We tell ourselves: “Sure, I’m out of shape, but I bet with a little training I could run a marathon.” Or “I haven’t studied anything since college, but I’m sure I could pick up Spanish with a few classes.”
The unfortunate thing is, we seldom then go put on our track shoes, or sign up for those language classes. We keep putting such things off… indefinitely.
That’s where New Year's Day and “The Fresh Start Effect” come in. Katy had a hunch that people’s motivation peaks at certain points in the year – and that can be used to push us to act on our intentions.
She began to do research on the specific events and dates in the calendar that might spur us on most, “so think more of Labor Day, than Valentine's Day”. (See my article about “The Fresh Start Effect” and World Mental Health Day)
Katy enlisted some undergraduates and asked them to think of a goal they really wanted to pursue. She then offered to send them a reminder of that goal on a future date. At random, half were told the reminder would come on March 20th, or May 14th. The other students were told they could get a reminder in “the first day of Spring”, or “the start of the summer break”. The dates are exactly the same, just the “fresh start” framing is different.
But Katy found that three times as many undergrads requested a reminder of their cherished goals when the date was dressed up to signify an important day of transition.
Things like religious holidays are also powerful moments that can galvanize us to take action. And birthdays, particularly significant ones.
Researchers Adam Alter and Hal Hershfield surveyed over 40,000 people asking: “How often do you question the meaning or purpose in your life on a scale of 1 (never) to 4 (often)?”
Those who were aged 39, but were about to turn 40, reported a score of 3.28 out of 4, which was higher than at any other age. People at such transition ages were more likely to engage in new positive meaning-building behaviors, like running a marathon for the first time.
Katy thinks this “fresh start effect” is down to our tendency to want to chop our lives into chunks. High School; before I moved town; after we bought the dog; since I changed jobs. These chapter breaks in our lives are actually pretty arbitrary – we are pretty much the same person on day one of college as we were before enrolling – but we often feel that they marked a big change.
Of all the possible “fresh starts” to pick, January 1 is the best established. So if you want to learn more about the science-backed habits that can increase your happiness, be sure to join me in the 2022 when I’ll be explaining how we can all reset our relationships with feelings like sadness, anxiety, grief and guilt. Just because they’re negative emotions, doesn’t mean we can’t approach with a positive frame of mind.
Stay well and Happy New Year!
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