It’s 11.30pm. I’m lying in my parent’s bathtub (not with them in), and I am watching The Walking Dead series one finale. It’s the closest I get to a New Year’s celebration with my family; they have “retired to bed” at 10.30pm – to fall asleep (not even) watching the countdown in bed, and here I am sipping on a root beer, watching a scene with a doctor ramble on stoically about the impending extinction of mankind, and with everyone else within half a square mile of rural Cheshire seemingly silent, I knew what he meant about a cold desolate landscape. I was completely alone apart from my cat, but what could he do in an apocalypse? (I’d say answers on a postcard, but I’m predicting no postcards in a zombie-filled future due to the breakdown of public services and overall social chaos).
The irony is that although I had apparently made zero effort for my current New Year celebration, I had in fact made the most effort in planning my night in years. The past five have included hot tub parties, but those were at my house and organized by my sister, so no effort needed there. They have also included a New Year’s in South Africa at an extremely over-crowded bar which I needed my passport to get into (I forgot my passport and my uncle had to drive a 45 minute round-trip back to the house whilst I acted as an honorary doorman and herded people into the very bar I was hoping to find a centimeter of free space in later), and one spent on Primrose Hill watching the capital’s fireworks which due to the rain, turned into a gigantic drunken mud slide full of floating candle lamps that seemed to act as drones that launched fire and brimstone down on us all when they got too flame-happy (if you’ve never tasted a tint of ash in your over-priced bottle of San Miguel, it’s a smoky taste that’s best left to Danish bacon).
The main people who desperately want the New Year to start are the ones who can’t wait for the old year to end. That’s certainly how I’ve felt in the past. The problem I experienced repeatedly is that I was so willing to look to the future in the quest for self-improvement that I often miss the chance to enjoy the moment for what it is. A relative once told me that the New Year was a chance to reflect on the past 365 days, and that you don’t need 10 seconds of a countdown to do that. When Harry Met Sally has my favorite New Year’s scene in cinema, and I’m not talking about the finale. In a scene two-thirds into the film, they exit a party on the countdown and head to the less crowded and noisy balcony to stand with each other. They don’t speak and they look glum, but contently glum, and while the rest of the party drink and push towards the future, they are in the moment and (whilst in denial at this point) happy to be in each other’s company. I was having a rather nice year, so why would I want to celebrate the end of it and alert myself to the start of the new one that I was happy to delay? There’s a deep joy in allowing uncertainty and unpredictability and that only comes from being in the moment. Harry and Sally got it right. I’ll have what they’re having.
The temptation is to use the last embers of the 31st December as a time to promise to turn over a new leaf, but you don’t need a clock to do that, you just get off your behind and do it. It is self-defeating to mark in dates on a calendar to change your personal circumstances and wellbeing. I know from experience that relying on a future of betterment can actually cause me to become even lazier in the days and months before. Tali Sharot talks about this in her TED talk ‘The Optimism Bias’. She explains how our brains are naturally wired to over-optimism and an over-confidence in achieving our future goals (we’re over-pessimistic about everyone else’s goals by the way), which can cause faulty planning, ill judgment and less effort as we convince ourselves there is near-certainty in us achieving what we want. I have been very guilty of this in the past, and I know I have used New Year’s Eve as a chance to boost my optimism-bias for the next 12 months. Maybe we feel we need this annual confidence top-up, as the day after is the dreaded January 1st. This is what I call the “flip effect” as it is the day people say they feel the least self-confidence about the coming year, and many crave the clock rewinding to 12 hours ago when confidence was sky high. Anticipation beats realisation.
Maybe this is the problem: celebrating a year so heavily over one night. Why not celebrate in the same way at the end of each day? You've survived another 24 hours in a world that is far from easy (from my mild form of tourette's, I would know), so why not toast to your success and recharge your optimism? It would certainly make the firework and alcohol manufacturers happy, us I predict less so as we’d forever wake up to the Flip Effect, our lives playing out as Bill Murray in Groundhog Day, with eternal confidence yo-yoing and hangovers (even in eternity, they still never get easier). I believe we should plan for the worst, and hope for pleasant surprises along the way. Life isn't a painting of a wonderful picture, it is a painting of a wonderful image, with layers of failure underneath. We should always keep painting on top, and relish the next unsuccessful layer, as there's (quite literally with paintings) a hidden beauty in the unpredictability that shapes who we are in each unfolding hour of each unfolding day. Uncertainty can be a very powerful tool in motivation and applying oneself, and I believe pessimism is intrinsicly linked to it. For example, Primrose Hill, South Africa and hot tubs may have seemed a nightmare at the time, but if I reflect on how bad some of those experiences were, they actually become much more fun in my mind (what a shame I didn’t look down on them a lot more at the time as I may have truly loved them).
There’s a pessimistic sense of joy that comes from the expectation of any ‘forced fun’ calendar date. I have started to tell myself “it’s all going to go wrong and be utterly nightmarishly terrible”, and this anticipation of danger and the risk of being pleasantly surprised brings a smile to my face way more than watching the London Eye light up and be dazzling, when I’ve known for months it’s going to light up and be dazzling. In conclusion, I applied this to my New Year’s Eve night in. I told myself I would be pitifully alone, sulking in a bath tub, with beer that calls itself beer which isn’t even beer, and that this was going to be the worst idea since Robbie Williams decided to sing Rude Box (what a shame I didn’t look down on it a lot more at the time as I may have loved it). This self-inflicted prediction in doom and gloom is precisely the thing that made me end up loving it: my expectations were so low, and the uncertainty levels so precariously high, that I had the best time in years.
Maybe next year I’ll pray for a Walking Dead apocalypse party, and find a doctor to speak to about the end of life as we know it. The only thing I fear is that I’ll realize how utterly pessimistic we are both being. We’ll then probably laugh out loud, shake our heads and realize we’re actually enjoying the moment and not counting down for it to all end (the year that is, not mankind). Roll on Series 2.