The Year of Practical Thinking

A new year, with its blank calendar pages, usually engenders widespread optimism, a feeling that this time around, things will be different. But this January comes with heavy baggage. After nearly two years of uncertainty, struggle, and loss due to the coronavirus pandemic, the future has many of us feeling more apprehensive than excited.

Humans tend to view big temporal changes as moments of renewal and potential, according to Katy Milkman, a behavioral economist at the University of Pennsylvania. “We group life into chapters,” she told me, underscoring the idea that people commonly see themselves as characters in their own book. Despite the typical mundanity of the first week of January, many feel like they’ve entered a new chapter filled with hope and promise. “The recent past feels more distant,” she said, and even just a few weeks ago “feels further behind us.” The year 2021 wasn’t the big shift from 2020 that folks expected, though, and many are dialing down this unbridled hope.

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