New Year’s Reflections: why 2017 should be the year of the small things

“Happiness can be found, even in the darkest of times, if one only remembers to turn on the light”  (Albus Dumbledore)

We’re facing another year, yet again. I personally like to think that a new year can be a marker for a new beginning; an opportunity for positive change. And that’s needed. In 2017, I think we need to return to a focus on small-scale happiness; on the ‘small things’ of our everyday lives.

On a global scale, 2016 has been troublesome, there’s no doubt about that—it’s been the year that democracy failed, fear prevailed, and death conquered. As if that wasn’t enough, it’s getting warmer; we’re choking our earth with fumes, we’re drowning our earth with melting ice. The sum of these parts become increasingly evident, real, materialised, at the brink of 2016—we’re balancing at the edge of a cliff, looking back at the path that got us there; its uphills and downhills, bends and corners.

At least this is the situation we’re told that we’re facing. But hasn’t this long been part of our reality? Was 2016 really a tipping point, or was it just that we didn’t start freaking out before now?

We’re all a little older, and, hopefully, a little wiser. We live and we learn. Amidst worldly turmoil and desperation, fuelled by media seeking both profit and attention, our micro-scale everyday lives must go on. We all experience different realities through our different lifeworlds. Going into another year, I think it’s important to acknowledge and cherish the joys of our everyday lives—the ‘small things’, as it were.

Despite the current state of affairs, the citizens of the Earth are much better off today than (pretty much) ever before. There’s less poverty, more wealth and resources, less war (believe it or not). We’re somehow moving forward as a species. But we seldom acknowlege this. One of the ‘issues’ nowadays is that we can see and understand much more of what’s happening far away than ever before.

We think the world is going under because all the horror that has previously been hidden behind the veils of time and space is now readily available to us, whenever it happens, wherever we are in the world.

I don’t know where the concern lies—do we know too much or too little? Technology and social media have shaped people’s access to news and knowledge in a way that has created strong bias. In our (arguably) ‘post-factual society’ with ‘post-truth politics’ (one of the more notable debates that have shaped 2016, following Brexit and the US presidential elections), people seem to care about hard facts much less than emotions and selective interpretations of them. Human induced climate change is perhaps the most prominent example of this: the facts are clear—backed by 97% of the planet’s climate scientists—yet some of the most powerful people in the world argue against it.

People don’t change for society; they expect society to change for them. People create a narrative in which they themselves are not the ones shaping society, but society is shaping them. People dismiss climate change because they don’t want to change their behaviours (“I’m not harming the environment, but these restrictions limit my freedom. Therefore climate change is fake”). People blame immigrants for societal failures because it gives them an outlet for their frustration, it solidifies their concerns (“We’re hardworking tax-paying citizens, we’ve done nothing wrong, but these immigrants steal our jobs, our freedom; they’re criminals, they’re terrorists”.) When there are problems we tend to look for culprits rather than solutions.

We’re spoon-fed information from all over the world every single day, regardless of source. It’s a lot to take in; it can be overwhelming. And it’s (almost) always biased, in one way or another. We all analyse the world surrounding us, but we wear different glasses. We see different things.

We care more about what’s close (or what seems close) to ourselves than what’s far away; we care more about what we identify with than what we do not; we care more about the current than the past or the future.

We’re selective in our sources for news and knowledge. The surge in production of fake news has further problematised this trend. Internet has made this selectivity possible.

We choose what to remember and what to forget; what to know, what to neglect. People hear what they want to hear, read what they want to read, not what they ought to. This is natural, it’s our instinct.

More than ever before we have the power to determine what we consume; we choose specific sources music, films, TV, entertainment, news, and so on, from enormous libraries of never-ending information—and so, we produce the world  that we see through our actions, but we understand the world through consumption. As such, we’re all very biased in not only the knowledge we produce, but also the knowledge that we receive.

And so, we create our own worlds.

Because of this over-saturation of knowledge sent our way, the happenings around the world become both more vivid and more distant. It can be difficult to identify and fully grasp the meaning of far-away conflicts, until, of course, news media are covered by a very graphic image of a dead child on the beach, or an injured boy covered in ashes and dust. These images make us care because they stimulate our emotions; they remove some of the perceived distance that we feel. They make distant horrors more real to us than a wall of text ever could.

The paradox here is that while people have a lot of knowledge (in fact, today the average 16-year-old knows more about the universe than Galileo ever did!), this knowledge might be misguided; and while most of us certainly don’t know enough to have educated opinions about important issues, we have the platforms to express ourselves and to gain support for our claims. We know too much and too little at the same time.

The only thing that we truly know and understand, is our individual lifeworlds, our intimate everyday lives. In the end, we tend to be mostly concerned about global affairs because of their perceived impacts on our own lives. Humans are egocentric beings.

When we’re bombarded with tragic news stories and images of war and inequality every day, it’s difficult to know what we should feel. Should we be sad because this or that is happening, or should we be grateful that it ‘didn’t happen to us’? Should we grief for them, or cherish and appreciate our own situations? Should we appreciate our own privileged situations because or despite of those of lesser privileged ‘others’? Would that be selfish? Could we do both? How?

Reflecting back on 2016, I’m left with a new realisation of the power of the everyday. In the end, we can’t escape the fact that we all live in our own little worlds, we all have our little everyday lives to tend to. When bad things are happening in the world, it therefore becomes even more important to acknowledge the small things—the morning coffee, the smile from a neighbour, the company of a friend, the warming sun, the pretty flowers, the tail-wagging dog. These seemingly minuscule events and moments matter. And all the small things, when put together, become big things. I think it’s important not to forget that.

Something that we might not consider is that 2016—as every year before it, and every year that will come after it—has also been a year of incredible joy. People have fallen in love. People have been with friends and family. People have consumed their favourite foods. People have seen new places. People have experienced new things. People have overcome their fears. People have smiled to each other, they have patted each other on the backs, and they have said nice things about each other. People have lived their lives, in which there are always ups and downs. This, of course, is very obvious, but it’s also easily neglected in the grand scheme of things.

I don’t want to seem bigoted, however. I’m a privileged individual, and that’s something that I’m very grateful for. Relatively speaking, my life is (or at least ought to be) ‘easy’. That, of course, doesn’t mean that I don’t have my own struggles and battles, as we all do, but that these problems are minuscule, almost non-problems, compared to what so many others in this world have to deal with on a daily basis. That is something I become more mindful of with every passing year.

However, there is happiness and sadness in everyone’s lives. We’re often told that money makes you happy, that the lack of it makes you miserable. We decide who’s privileged and who’s unprivileged, and thereby also who’s in the centre (‘us’) and who’s in the margins (‘them’). We’re constructing a narrative in which ‘we’, the privileged ones, are the heroes that will save the poor and/or miserable, the other.

It’s important to show concern—to donate money when we can afford it, to be friendly to the environment, eat less animals, stand up to those who do evil. However, it’s arguably even more important to be sincere about doing good. That’s the only way we can create sustainable happiness, a sustainable human consciousness.

We tend to donate money not because we truly care, but because we want to feel good about ourselves, because we’re told to do it, because we can share it on Facebook afterwards. It’s just very difficult to really sympathise with someone or something that’s very far away, that doesn’t affect our own personal lives that much. This is also why we’re in shock when there’s a terror attack in France, Belgium, Germany—but don’t even blink when another bomb detonates, claiming the lives of hundreds, in a faraway, non-Western country. I think we can be a bit naïve sometimes; and that’s difficult to acknowledge.

However, what produces happiness is not what we tend to think does. We think we know ourselves better than we actually do. We think of happiness as a result of something, as “if I do this or that I’ll be happy”. In other words, we think that happiness is produced by ‘doing something’; that you go from unhappy to happy through a certain action. This is usually not the case. For instance, after having saved up for a new iPhone for a year, all of that excitement is usually gone in a matter of days, or at least weeks, after having purchased it. Of course, a certain level of wealth and possession can increase the likelihood of being happy, but for most of us, the feeling of happiness relies on other factors. It relies on the small things.

I’m not saying that war and conflict don’t make people unhappy. They do. They create sadness, misery, anger, hate. Very few people, if any at all, gain happiness from conflict. What I’m saying is that the typical Western construction of what constitutes happiness is, if not wrong, at least misguided. The result is that people spend their lives chasing a happiness that might not exist. They’re searching vast rooms for what exists only in the corners: the small things.

The ‘small things’ are product, part and parcel, of the everyday. Going into 2017, I think the best thing we can do to make this world a better place—at least a little bit better than the previous year—is to be more mindful of the little joys of everyday life; and to do our best to contribute to others’ experience of these joys.

When there’s so much turmoil going on in the world; so many potentials for negative emotions, it becomes even more important to recognise these small things. For most of us, life goes on, despite war and conflict ‘elsewhere’—that’s just how it is and will always be. And it might be naive to say so, but I think that’s a good thing. Life goes on because it needs to.

But the macro is the sum of the micro; the system the sum of our lifeworlds. It all starts with our everyday lives—we don’t ‘consume’ our everyday lives, we live them, we are them. We need to create positive meaning for ourselves and for others in our own little everyday bubbles because it’s the only thing we can truly do ourselves.

We need to produce small-scale happiness. It should be the starting point, at least, toward something bigger. When the world is turbulent—which it will always be, to some extent—it’s these small things that we can hold on to; that can keep us sane, and happy. And we need that.

So, in 2017, return your neighbour’s smile. Say ‘thank you’ and ‘have a good day’ to the cashier at the supermarket. Simply put: do your best to communicate your appreciation for others. I think that’s what it boils down to, and it’s something we can all do. If everyone treated their neighbour as their friend, in good times and in bad, this world would be a better place.

We could, and should, all do more to improve the lives of those who struggle—donate, volunteer, engage. Something we can all do, all the time, however, is to improve the lives of those around us, those with whom we’re in direct contact with.

We’re all tiny droplets in a vast ocean. If we can make the lives of our peers a bit better, we enable others to further that very process; it’s called the ripple effect. So, in the darkest of times, help your peers turn on their lights, so they can help others to do the same. Heck, it’s what we all need to do; to do the small things.

Yes, 2016 has been a problematic year for many—but so was 2015 and so will 2017 be. 2016 was also a year of joy, of love, of change. Like any year, any time, before or after. Lived life in itself is always a negotiation of the good and the bad (and, sometimes, unfortunately, the truly ugly). A new year can’t be a fresh start for the world in its entirety because global affairs are always ongoing. But it can serve as a motivation for individual action and change.

Going into a new year, let’s not get too caught up in representations of a world that is doomed, that is falling apart. Let’s appreciate the simple joys of everyday. Let’s make 2017 the year of the small things.

Happy new year! 🙂

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