New Year resolutions for unusual times

New Year resolutions for unusual times

2020 is a warning against business-as-usual; it would be wise to consider the lessons it has served in our contemplations for 2021 and beyond

Representative image. Credit: iStock

To begin with, a basic question. Do New Year (NY) resolutions even make sense? Resolution-skeptics believe January 1 is like any other calendar day, and therefore offers no added chance of success with self-improvement plans. There is data to support the argument. Most NY resolutions are binned – about 80 per cent by the second week of February, global data from fitness tracker Strava indicates – and only 8 per cent are accomplished.

Is this a compelling reason to avoid NY resolutions though? No. It is alright if a specific dawn inspires us into improving ourselves. One estimate suggests that about 60 per cent of the world’s adults think the start of the year is a suitable time to embrace better habits and lifestyles. That’s a lot of hopeful people, and it can’t be a bad thing for the world. Better to have hoped and failed than never to have hoped at all.

Now, NY resolutions are commonly about eating right, exercising more, meditating more, quitting smoking, prioritising expenses, spending more time with family, or picking up a new skill. While we are all entitled to decide what is best for ourselves, there’s a case for looking beyond this familiar menu in the coming days.

2020, the most tumultuous year most of us have seen, has been a warning against business-as-usual, and it would be wise to at least consider the lessons it has served in our contemplations for 2021 and beyond. Of these lessons, small and big, two may have the greatest import for the future.

One: Human fortunes, despite all the divisions of geography, address, and identity we have created, are twined. This is not to suggest that everyone has suffered the same. Far from it. But  this year underscores that misery when it spreads beyond a point will breach moats and walls of privilege.

Some may have coped better with the pandemic than others, but even the richest countries have seen pain, even the most insulated, deep-pocketed homes have had lives thrown out of gear, and even the most established of businesses haven’t escaped unhurt. The path to recovery in each case travels through a movement to a new, less unjust normal. For everyone.

Two: Expertise needs to be respected. If the pandemic has spared many more lives than it has claimed and if we are a little more hopeful today than we were six months ago, we have the advances in modern medicine to thank.

This is not to diminish traditional knowledge systems, lay person’s views, or the word of democratically-elected governments but to recognise that meaningful responses to the pressing issues of our time cannot be – should not be – developed without drawing on expertise accumulated via years of scholarship, experiment, debate, and experience.

Important caveat: It is not just techno-managerial solutions that will do the job. Ensuring that such solutions are culturally-acceptable and delivered in an equitable manner requires other, often far more crucial insight streams to be tapped. For instance, the scientist’s work on the vaccine now needs to be taken forward by communication, economics, and logistics professionals (among others) to respond to issues around hesitancy, pricing, and delivery. Of course, at each stage, the voice of the ultimate client – the citizen – must shape experts’ schema and recommendations. A tone-deaf expert is no expert.

Living the learnings of 2020

Consistent with these lessons, 2021 could kick-off with promises to self to help address the pain of the less well-placed and back ideas that domain experts back. Neither is easy – empathy doesn’t develop overnight and expert opinion is difficult to spot in times of truth decay – but that is insufficient reason to hold back. The dream of a better future is too important to be ceded without effort. Plus, aren’t NY resolutions meant to be challenging?

The practice of ‘giving back’ via donations and volunteer time has been around in some circles for a while now. These are entirely acceptable ways to engage with issues of collective and societal import, provided the engagement is continuous and not after a fashion.

That said, there are two under-explored areas those inclined to give-back may add to their effort-portfolio. A: Initiatives focused on addressing social fractures, in particular those promoting social harmony and fighting identity-based discriminations, need greater support than they get. B: The performance of the government – the largest player in matters of development – merits greater scrutiny. A healthy skepticism about achievement figures and stronger vocalisation of concerns around scheme design and implementation gaps, as also firmer endorsements of what works on ground, could go a long way.

Backing expert opinion on complex issues requires, more than anything else, examining our relationship with social media, the now preferred arena for expressing, approving, galvanising, contesting, and discrediting opinion. At a time when experts differ (sometimes genuinely) and biases and political leanings determine positions and their amplifications, the common checks against fake news social media giants recommend are worth a try.

So, we would do well to avoid believing and disseminating content that has been labeled misleading, debunked by fact checkers, or originates from dodgy publishers (tips to identify them are readily available).

If some of this sounds like too much research, one rule of thumb, which like all such rules involves a trade-off, may be in order. Avoid sharing forwards and memes. Recognise that these are opinion manipulation tools, distilling selective information and preying on biases.

If truth and fact are of paramount interest, if the idea is to earnestly engage with a public interest matter, and it is for these reasons a social media stance seems the thing to do, understand that being a propaganda tool is not civic engagement and invest time in understanding issues and perspectives. If there are still no clear answers, it is because there are complex issues to which simple answers aren’t always available. It doesn’t make those leaning towards answers different from our own naïve or traitorous.

Happy New Year. May empathy and truth guide us all.

(Manish Dubey is a policy analyst and writer)

Disclaimer: The views expressed above are the author’s own. They do not necessarily reflect the views of DH.