7 life lessons I’ll rely on this new year

By Steven Petrow.  Washington Post January 8th 2024

Before I slammed the door on 2023 — good riddance! — I took some time to reflect on it. Specifically, what useful lessons, insights and practices can I pack up and carry into the new year to help live with more balance, resilience, even joy?L

If there’s one thing I know for sure, it’s that next year will bring its own roadblocks and detours, turns and twists.

Here’s hoping some of the items in my baggage will help you navigate the 366 days of 2024. (Yep, it’s a leap year.)1

Connection is key

You know that saying, “It’s not the destination but the journey”? Over the summer, I heard a friend update it to, “It’s not the destination or the journey, but the companionship.”

I don’t think this friend knew the work of the early 20th-century French sociologist Émile Durkheim, who coined the term “collective effervescence,” believing that group activities excite and unify us. If Durkheim were alive today, I’m certain he’d point to a Taylor Swift or Beyoncé or Cher concert as the perfect example. Next best: Plan a dance party, or join a choral group or a sports team.2

Kindness is contagious

We take it as a given that bad behavior easily goes viral — just look at “copycat” crimes or mob mentality. Why can’t we make good behavior spread just as fast?

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According to Jamil Zaki, a professor of psychology at Stanford University, it’s certainly possible. “We find that people imitate not only the particulars of positive actions, but also the spirit underlying them,” he wrote in Scientific American several years ago.“This implies … that kindness itself is contagious, and that … it can cascade across people, taking on new forms along the way.”

For instance, he found that people made larger charitable gifts when they believed people around them were contributing generously than when they thought those others were stingy.Share this articleNo subscription required to readShare

Even when people cannot afford to donate, he learned “an individual’s kindness can nonetheless trigger people to spread positivity in other ways.” So consider paying for the next person’s coffee or meal in the drive-through, or offer to help a neighbor with snow shoveling or taking out the trash.3

Gratitude is powerful

While gratitude has become a well-worn buzzword these days, study after study shows how it improves our lives. Psychologist and author Robert Emmons wrote: “Gratitude gives us that connection. It gives us that sense of transcendence, the sense of celebration, but also the awareness of the finiteness of life.” Fortunately, Emmons’s approach doesn’t require a high bar, as he recommends keeping a gratitude journal — a simple notebook — to regularly record the things for which we’re grateful. At one point I feared I’d have nothing to be grateful for, given a year in which my parents died and I separated from my husband. But I did have things. And writing them down in a gratitude journal helped me, and may do the same for you, science says.4

Vulnerability is hard but worth it

Steven Overly, 35, experienced sudden hearing loss two years ago. At first the reporter and podcast host feared for his ability to work and socialize. But he found that talking about his disability and then writing about it had two surprising benefits. “I found … a sense of purpose in what I had done, that making myself vulnerable and sharing this experience has actually helped people in a very direct way.” In “Daring Greatly: How the Courage to Be Vulnerable Transforms the Way We Live, Love, Parent, and Lead,” researcher and writer Brené Brown wrote: “Vulnerability is the birthplace of love, belonging, joy, courage, empathy, and creativity. It is the source of hope, empathy, accountability, and authenticity.”5

Silence speaks volumes

Hush! You might actually hear someone. So many people have told me they don’t feel seen or heard — it’s a veritable “epidemic of invisibility.” I understand the pain caused by feeling unimportant or left out, leading to hurt and anger, because I’ve experienced it, too. So how do we begin to change these feelings of invisibility? Start listening, and I don’t mean pretending to listen. According to the U.S. Institute of Peace, “active listening is a way of listening and responding to another person that improves mutual understanding.” In practice, it starts with making eye contact and focusing on the other person; leaning in or nodding to let them know you’re paying attention; and allowing the other person to finish before you respond or, worse, interrupt.6

Doing nothing is challenging but rewarding

The practice of “doing nothing” has been popularized by several recent books, one of which is “Niksen: Embracing the Dutch Art of Doing Nothing” by Olga Mecking. The Dutch word “niksen” is “doing nothing on purpose, without a purpose.” It’s different from self-care activities like yoga, breadmaking or volunteering, all of which have an ostensible goal and require doing something. Mecking argues that doing nothing resists the pressure many of us feel to schedule our days for maximum productivity. In Canada, meditation teacher and author Jeff Warren leads a weekly online group called the Do Nothing Project, which brings together a couple hundred souls “doing not much together.” I thought doing nothing would make me nuts; after two years, it’s helped me find inner calm and equanimity. Try letting your mind wander. (If you want to do this at home, go to jeffwarren.org and scroll to the middle of the page.)7

Joy is everywhere

Last month I finished writing a book about my search for joy in stormy times. One of the biggest aha moments was the discovery of just how many different kinds of joy exist. It’s more than the ecstatic “bursting with joy” notion we tend to think of. There’s serene joy, sexual joy, even schadenfreude (the sneaky joy found in another person’s misfortune). Joy also goes by many names, including delight, exuberance, pleasure, peace, contentedness, amusement, wonder and relief. It surrounds us, and lives within us. Open your heart, and choose it when you see it.

So as I pack up that ragged duffel bag labeled “2023” and prepare to toss it into history, I’ll be plucking these few precious lessons out first to take with me in my shiny new spinner bag named “2024.”