Twenty twenty-two was going to be my year – a belief that almost certainly ensured it wouldn’t be. There was no threat of a lockdown. I had saved a lot of money and planned to go freelance, starting with a brief sabbatical. I secretly expected some meteoric rise, both personally and professionally. I was going to go on holiday.
Reality was never going to compete with this vision, but what ensued felt like a needlessly punitive punishment for my naivety. The first day after leaving my full-time job I got sick for nearly a month, leaving me bed-bound for the duration of my planned break from work. Once I was well again, I had to scramble to catch up on the work I had allotted leisurely time to complete. As I was recovering four weeks later, someone I loved died out of nowhere. I spent the rest of the year learning how much I had been emotionally relying on him while experiencing more trivial, farcical instances of bad luck – cancelled travel, cancelled work, surprise bills, illness when I tried to take time off. Whenever I felt I had finally overcome my bad streak, something even worse came along.
By the following January, my expectations for the new year were low. I felt ground down, my hubristic optimism well and truly gone. As someone who had previously categorised my life into neat, year-long boxes – beginning each one full of hope and ambition – I had only one goal for 2023: just try to feel better.
Maybe I’m just out of sync with most people, maybe I did my bad year early – but the gift I was given after my terrible 2022 was a 2023 untethered from expectations or aims. Rather than being browbeaten by a fear of what heartbreak and disappointment might still come, I instead found freedom in my goallessness, liberation in trying to achieve nothing beyond the fundamentals (taking care of myself and others, doing good work and having fun whenever I could). I can’t remember a time when I looked back at a year with more pride and less anxiety – despite still experiencing plenty of stress and grief, and earning fewer concrete “achievements” than I would have liked. I am entering 2024 happier than ever, precisely because I’m not recording each year of my life in the binary of success or failure.
In last few weeks, my social feeds have been full of people reflecting negatively on the past year. On TikTok, the tag “2023 is the worst year of my life” has more than 11 million views; “worst year of my life” has 70 million. Aside from Taylor Swift, I haven’t seen a single person celebrating their 2023 – only a lot of people complaining about how little they felt they achieved, and announcing their goals and resolutions for 2024.
Among those #challenges, there is plenty of resistance to “new year, new me” attitudes: that you don’t have to make any resolutions, or, if you do, make ones that encourage wellbeing rather than meet social expectations. By and large, I agree with the sentiment. The real, transformative change lies somewhere between focusing on specific goals and rejecting them outright. I don’t think a happy life is found in the absence of ambition or aspiration, and believe real fulfilment – not just a dopamine hit of social pride and attention – can come from setting aims and achieving them. (January being seen as a clean slate can be useful too, as can understanding December as a closed door to block out bad things.) There is a lot of power to be found in recalibrating what you consider success.
The freedom I found in letting go of ambition came out of dire circumstances – but we don’t need to be in a desperate situation to change how we think about the future. I’m advocating for relieving some of the pressure we all feel, no matter how well the previous 12 months seemed to go. I’m willing to believe that some people achieve health and happiness from setting lots of small, regular goals, but I’m not sure who benefits from treating January as the starting gun on a 365-day race and 31 December as the immovable finish line.
If we break out of this mindset, the bad, when it comes, won’t feel like such a failure. We deserve more than 12 months before mentally declaring them lost.