Kitchener-Waterloo·Happiness Column

How to emotionally prepare for 2021: Jennifer Moss

We've been running on empty for far too long. So, right now, whatever we can do to be emotionally readied for 2021, that should be our top priority when it comes to our mental health.

To move on requires doing the things that help us more than harms us

Happiness columnist Jennifer Moss explains how to emotionally prepare for the new year. (Shutterstock / fizkes)

I think most of us would agree, 2020 did not meet expectations.

Actually, my column last year, Happiness Predictions for a New Decade, was strange to revisit. Some of my predictions included, a shift in how much more openly we would discuss mental illness and mental health issues; there would be an increase in the use of wellness technology. I also suggest that we'd see a pressing need for more in-person connections to combat the rapidly increasing loneliness and isolation. 

The issue with 2020 was that we had very little reserves already, so we really needed it to be a healthier year. Hope, according to our global Gallup data – the data the UN uses and what we use for the happiness council research – was at an all-time low around the world. So, it was an even harder time to be tested.

We've been running on empty for far too long. So, right now, whatever we can do to be emotionally readied for 2021, that should be our top priority when it comes to our mental health.

Just let it go

I think most of us just want to put 2020 in a vault, tie a truck to it and let it sink to the bottom of the lake. But, unfortunately, that ends up just being a stop-gap – a short term reprieve from the negative impact on our mental health. 

Some people have experienced some very serious trauma and that may require additional therapy and support. But if we are in the group that just hated 2020 and want it to all be over – there are some tools to build that resilience that will help us actually move on.

To do that we can't just ignore that 2020 actually happened. Instead we have to acknowledge the really hard moments, and then analyze how they've impacted us.

In positive psychology, resiliency is all about rebounding – bouncing back from our stressful moments in life. One of my favourite movie lines of all time – that sums up hope and resilience for me – is when Dennis Hope (apropos), played by Jimmy Fallon in the movie Almost Famous said, "I didn't invent the rainy day, man. I just own the best umbrella."

It's not like we can stop bad stuff from happening, but we can come prepared. And, if you've never experienced a rainy day – you don't know that you need an umbrella to keep you dry. But after you do – it changes you for the better. Because you learn from it. Your brain creates queues. "Oh – it's raining outside I should bring my umbrella".

So, how do we decide which experiences we should hold on to and which ones aren't worth carrying around with us? This is an important question. Our memories are incredibly powerful in how we'll predict future behaviours and emotions. The more we retell a memory in a specific way, the more it becomes our reality. Despite whether it was actually the way it occurred in the first place. 

Therefore, if the current story we're telling ourselves is entirely negative, then that becomes our reality. For example, we're repeating the story that "nothing good came out of 2020." Or, "I hated everything about last year." This may feel like it's true, but most likely it isn't.

Reframing is a technique used in therapy to help create a different way of looking at a situation, person, or relationship by changing its meaning. Also referred to as cognitive reframing, it's a strategy that helps us to look at situations from a slightly different perspective.

So, we may still say that 2020 was a crappy year but we can choose just how crappy it was. We do that by retelling a story that describes the benefits versus the pain points. 

Where do I start?

First, we need to notice our thoughts. How are we describing this experience? Are we making permanent statements, like, "I will never get over last year,"or, "I never want to think about 2020 again."

Now, challenge those thoughts. An effective part of reframing involves examining the truth and accuracy (or lack thereof) of our stories. So, ask yourself, are the things I'm telling myself completely true?"

What if you never actually thought about 2020 again – what would you miss? Perhaps it would be the birth of a new baby in the family? A new opportunity that came up at work. A friend that came to help when you were in need. Realizing that you were grateful for more time with family and the slowing down of some aspect of your pre-COVID life. That was the biggest takeaway that I personally will pull from 2020.

It can even just be one marker that you hold onto. You would now say, "2020 was really hard, but at least one really good thing came out of it."

We need to consider other ways to interpret the same set of events – which ways of seeing things serve you better? Instead of seeing things the way you always have, challenge every negative thought, and see if you can adopt thoughts that fit your situation but reflect a more positive outlook.

How reframing helps 

Not only does going through this exercise of testing the accuracy of our negative thoughts help us to focus on the good – useful for being a more well human. But, we also benefit from learning skills that we can apply during the next stress event.

Think about my earlier example of learning to bring an umbrella with you when it's raining or about to rain. You stop seeing potentially stressful situations as a threat but just a challenge to be prepared for. 

If we have to deal with anything remotely like 2020 again, we can recall the many tools we've picked up to handle the stress. Our brains will feel relieved because our brain subconsciously predicts that we'll have emotional flexibility to adjust and pivot on the fly. It senses that we now know how to get through a hard time.

To continue healing into 2021, changing the filter through which we interpret 2020 will be essential. Reflecting and pulling this subconscious knowledge into our conscious mindset, helps it to stick. But, what stories we pull out is up to us. We have the ability to pay attention to these benefits over here – and stop only focusing on all the pain over there.

Let me be clear; it doesn't mean that all of this pain, heartache and grieving didn't exist and won't still be part of our lives going forward. Being resilient isn't about ignoring all of that. But to move on requires doing the things that help us more than harms us.

And although we may still come out of 2020 into 2021, scratched up and bruised, let's remind ourselves – we made it. Maybe just barely, but we made it.


Jennifer Moss

CBC Happiness and Well-being Columnist

Jennifer Moss is an international public speaker, award-winning author, and UN Global Happiness Committee Member. She is based in Kitchener, Ontario.