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It’s tempting to think of the new year as a clean slate — especially after the one we’ve just had. Pretty much everyone has been wondering when it would end.

However, waving goodbye to 2020 and welcoming in 2021 doesn’t mean we can just forget the past. We’ve already seen the repercussions of 2020 showing their ugly head this year.

With continued unrest greeting us in the new year, it helps to stop and reflect. That’s where happiness expert Michelle Wax comes in.

Wax has studied happiness across all 50 states and knows a thing or two about expectation, disappointment, and cultivating lasting positivity.

She shares with us that even though 2021 may not provide the respite we’ve hoped for, we can still manage expectations and even find happiness in the new year.

As the founder of American Happiness Project, Wax makes it her business to understand the components that make up satisfaction with life.

One of those things is being OK with change.

“With 2020 being a year full of unexpected twists and turns, many have been looking forward to 2021 as a fresh start,” says Wax. “But what 2020 has proven more than anything else is that nothing is ever certain. Every single day — and even every single hour — can bring unexpected and unpredictable events.”

Wax explains that humans crave a strong desire for certainty. It’s a primal need.

“It’s really not your fault if you’ve been feeling unsure or worried about the year ahead,” says Wax. “The solution to this is focusing on the two things we can control and be certain of: ourselves and our mindset.”

Instead of waiting for the world to get better now that 2021 is here, you can take the opportunity to focus inward.

This includes slowing down and being more mindful in your day-to-day life. You can practice meditation, focus on building relationships, and work on increasing your resilience.

The main issue with hoping that some future date will provide a do-over is that it puts the control entirely out of your hands.

“Being dependent on any outside factor, whether that be a person, thing, or circumstance, to dictate how you feel about the new year and who you are leaves it out of your control,” Wax says.

Instead of leaving it up to fate, you can remember that you have a choice.

“In our research across all 50 states, the number one theme for long-term happiness… was that happiness is a choice and it’s always internal,” says Wax.

So if you want to strive for happiness, focus on your internal approach to life. Don’t seek it in changing, external circumstances.

“It isn’t about the external events around you, it’s about how your brain is interpreting those events,” Wax says.

The first step to managing expectations is to start to shift any expectations into thoughts of appreciation. Expectation often leads to disappointment.

“Very rarely do people or events around us live up to our expectations, and expectations often lead to disappointment and angst,” says Wax.

Instead, try concentrating on what you do have.

“What can you appreciate in this moment? Making it a priority to consciously start shifting expectations to appreciation — no matter how small — begins to rewire your mind for a more positive mindset,” Wax says.

Instead of ruminating on what 2020 has taken away from you, try to reflect on what you have that makes your life wonderful, like friends, family, newfound hobbies, and the community that you’re still able to connect with.

At the same time, be sure to avoid invalidating your feelings and experiences with toxic positivity. Even some negative thinking can help you navigate a difficult situation.

You’re allowed to feel what you feel, especially when things get hard. You can then recover by reframing your outlook.

Wax suggests getting in the habit of starting your day proactively and on your own terms.

“The majority of us start our days scrolling through the news, social media, emails, and text messages. When we do this, we give away our control first thing in the morning and allow outside factors to determine how our day will unfold,” Wax says. “Starting our days off in ‘response’ mode diminishes productivity, as we haven’t set our own goals and priorities.”

Instead of waking up with Facebook, try searching inward. Reflect on your day ahead and the feelings around it.

Wax recommends the following morning ritual to help you start your day off with intention.

First, keep your phone on airplane mode (or set to “do not disturb,” with the option for certain people to reach you in case of an emergency) while you sleep and when you wake.

Then ask yourself these three questions:

1. What can I look forward to today?

2. What has the potential to stress me out or limit productivity today, and how will I respond to it?

3. How do I want to feel at the end of the day, and what do I need to do or not do to make that happen?

Try grabbing a journal to jot all your answers down first thing in the morning. This can help you get into the routine and reflect on your responses.

“The first step to creating more joy and happiness is becoming self-aware of the things and people that are draining it,” Wax says.

Try this technique to get clear on what you need:

  1. Get a piece of paper and pen and draw a line down the middle of the page.
  2. On one side, write down what currently brings happiness into your life.
  3. On the other, write down what doesn’t.

Once you’ve written your list, spend some time reflecting on how you can increase what’s in column 1 and decrease column 2.

“Often, we can’t necessarily eliminate what’s in column 2, but we can place time limitations on it,” Wax suggests.

For example, she says if you get stressed from the constant barrage of news, keep your exposure to 1 hour per day or even 1 hour per week.

“In general, place a greater focus of time and energy on what you can control, not what you can’t,” says Wax.

This includes external circumstances.

Another strategy is to incorporate appreciation into weekly tasks and routines. Never underestimate the power of appreciation, both within and without.

Wax asks, “When was the last time you told someone how much you appreciate them? Or how much they made an impact on your life?”

Little reflections like this can bring in a flood of goodwill and connection where there was tension and stress before.

“You have the power to make someone’s day today in just a few seconds. Whether it’s your old coworker, your son, your wife, your teacher,” Wax says.

Think of someone who’s made an impact in your life, and make sure to let them know. You can send them a letter, an email, a text, a voice memo, or give them a call.

When telling someone how much you appreciate them, Wax says to get specific. Share the true impact they’ve had on you and how they’ve changed your life for the better.

One of American Happiness Project’s initiatives is sending free appreciation letters. If you fill out a form on their website, they’ll mail out a letter to the person of your choice.

“[This] makes it super easy to put yourself into a mindset of appreciation,” says Wax.

Then take some time to appreciate the person that you are, too.

The date on the calendar has far less power than our mindset and attitude do.

Instead of hoping for the best as the days pass by, try cultivating sustainable strategies for resilience, appreciation, and finding ways to be happy in the midst of change.

These tools will set you up for happiness in 2021 and beyond.


Marnie Vinall is a freelance writer living in Melbourne, Australia. She’s written extensively for a range of publications, covering everything from politics and mental health to nostalgic sandwiches and the state of her own vagina. You can reach Marnie via Twitter, Instagram, or her website.