New Year, New Start?

new year 2022

By Audrey Riley

So here we are midway through January 2022 and I wonder how many of you are still feeling the hopefulness and anticipation that the beginning of a year seems to bring? I know I still am although not quite as strongly as in the early days of January. And this got me wondering what it is about a new year that seems to bring out our most optimistic side? Is it just the messages that we send and receive, wishing each other a great year ahead, that start pinging through on our phones as the clock strikes midnight? Or is there something deeper at work here?

Whilst I am not aware of any specific brain imaging studies that have been done on people on new year’s eve and new year’s day [I mean would you give up your champagne and celebration for an MRI?!], there are a number of psychological explanations for what happens to us as the clock strikes midnight. Firstly, let’s consider what most of us tend to do on new year’s eve. Generally, the majority of people celebrate the coming of a new year with friends and/or family, in other words, people we care about and who care about us. When we spend time in positive social interactions, we get a dose of oxytocin running through our brains. Oxytocin is a neurotransmitter and is often called the ‘love’ or ‘hug’ hormone’ as its levels increase when we hug someone we care about. Increased levels of oxytocin play a role in empathy, trust and relationship building, as well as acting a bit like a painkiller and antidepressant. Closely allied to oxytocin, is serotonin, another neurotransmitter and hormone. Serotonin is also known as the ‘happy’ hormone for the significant role it plays in making us feel happy. So there we are, enjoying a wonderful social gathering with our nearest and dearest and we’re feeling happy, relaxed and connected. But is that enough for us to be so optimistic about the coming year?

It turns out, there’s more [just like a good sales pitch…!]. One thing that humans are really good at is anticipating and there’s no better time to bring in some positive anticipation than on the 31st December. The year ahead lies before us, as yet completely untainted by any failures and setbacks and the idea that we can push a reset button and start afresh, can bring about a delicious sense of anticipation and excitement. When we anticipate the coming of something positive, we get a rush of dopamine, the reward hormone, which can help us build motivation and get us into action. This dopamine hit, helped by the oxytocin and serotonin, is part of what drives us to make new year’s resolutions – some of which can be rather unrealistic. More about resolutions in a while…

But wait, there’s still more! Another reason we’re so optimistic as the year changes, is that on a very basic human level, we are just delighted that we have survived another year. When we reflect back on the year that has passed, we often find that distance gives us a kinder eye and we are less critical of our failures. In fact, we can use the feel-good hormones coursing through our brains and bodies to notice how we used our strengths to overcome our challenges and how, despite whatever odds we faced, we are still here, still standing. This sense of having survived, of having made it to the finishing tape of the year, allows us to build our self-esteem and gives us the confidence and motivation to face the year ahead.

So back to those resolutions… whether you are a fan or not, whether you openly share them or secretly hide them, or don’t bother at all, has a lot to do with our need to exercise some control over the coming year. One of our brain’s biggest functions is to keep us safe and in order to do so, it has to know what to prepare for. Of course, unless you are lucky enough to possess powers of clairvoyance, we cannot know what the future will bring. If nothing else, Covid has taught us this in a very painful way. However, there are some things we can do which can help us feel in control and this is where the setting of resolutions comes in. I am not going to go into ‘how to set and achieve your resolutions for definite this year,’ as there is already much on the subject out there. What I would like to share with you though, is this – a study by Dr Patrick Hill of Carleton University in Canada found that people who have a goal or a purpose in life, are healthier as they age and live longer compared to those that lead a purposeless life. Sounds like a good reason to think about setting some sort of resolutions, or goals, for the year ahead, don’t you think?

Whether you decide to make major or minor changes in 2022, you have the power to access the ‘neuroscience of hope’ that a new year brings at the beginning of each month, on your birthday, on the summer or winter solstice or indeed, at the start of each new day. Using positive anticipation, believing in our ability to face whatever the day will bring and connecting daily with those we care about, are all ‘behaviorceuticals’ as Kelly Lambert, the Professor of Behavioural Neuroscience at the University of Richmond, puts it, that anyone can access. These can help us feel more optimistic and hopeful about an uncertain future. They are definitely cheaper than pharmaceuticals and have much more pleasant side effects!

From all of us at Factor10 we wish you a positive and inspired 2022!

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