Is Trying New Things the Key to Mental Health? I Set Myself a Challenge to Find Out
Marcus McCabe has ditched New Year's Resolutions – instead, he's spending January doing 31 different wellbeing activities, raising money for men's mental health along the way. Here's what he has learned
January is a natural time to reassess your habits and patterns of behaviour. Do you want to go on as you have been for the last 12 months, or do you want to reinvent yourself as the person you always wanted to be – the person your grandma tells her friends you are.
I’ve often thought of a New Year’s resolution as a way to fix myself. Maybe I’ve been feeling socially isolated, and I want to make more friends, so I decide I’ll talk to one new person a week. Perhaps I feel worried about work, so I become fixated on the idea that meditating every day is the silver bullet cure. It boils down to a desire to be better: if I could just be a little more disciplined, all my problems would dissolve into thin air.
So, I’ve made many resolutions across the years. I’ve tried to give up basically everything, from sugar to nose picking. I’ve tried to take up pretty much everything, from making my bed to writing in a journal. But I can count on one finger the number of times I’ve stuck with one (shout out to cold showers).
And nobody really expects to achieve their resolution. 30 million people across the UK make New Year’s resolutions every year, only for the majority to abandon them within 2 months. It’s become a yearly ritual signalling that you know you could be doing better. But when announcing a New Year’s resolution people so often accompany their announcement with a self-deprecating nod to the fact they don’t expect to follow through.
There’s nothing wrong with thinking about your physical and mental health, during January or at any other time. But with less than 10% of people actually achieving their goal you have over 90% of the population forced to face up to the fact that they apparently don’t care enough about their mental and physical health to ACTUALLY change. It feels like a defeat, year, after year, after year.
This year I was poised to write up my resolutions, setting myself up for failure once again, when I happened to speak to my friend Zach Beckett who claimed he’d discovered an alternative.
Last year, he said, he’d ditched his annual resolution in favour of 31 different wellbeing activities, one for each day of January. The idea is to get out and do things that make you feel good rather than set lofty goals. You get out of the house, get active and discover new wellbeing activities to take with you throughout the year.
You aren’t tasked with an almost impossible feat of willpower and self-abnegation, instead you set up a habit of taking time for yourself every day – where you are working towards absolutely no defined goal. Just do something purely because it will make you feel good, he said.
So, along with our friend Lewis McNulty, we decided to recreate last year’s 31 day programme and film it as a YouTube docuseries. We decided we wanted to do our small part to remove taboos around men’s mental health by filming our discoveries and talking about how we are feeling now and how we have felt in the past.
We have all three found January a time when we need to tend to our mental health even more than usual. January 2021 was the saddest month since records began. It’s dark, it’s cold, and Christmas has been and gone. New Year’s resolutions if anything make this worse. It’s the time when people are most likely to google the term ‘diet’.
Instead of unsustainable goals we needed a post-advent calendar of wellbeing activities to carry us through to spring, balancing a mixture of traditional wellbeing activities like running and meditation with some more whacky ones like sound baths and sensory deprivation tanks.
Two weeks in and we have tried 14 different wellbeing activities, from writing out affirmations to a sauna sound bath. Meanwhile, most people have already given up their resolution according to research by Strava. Common themes have started to emerge. Moving your body is always a good idea. And most activities are more fun and beneficial when done with a mate or two who doesn’t take themselves too seriously.
We’ve also been noticing that a lot of the wellbeing activities that people swear by involve becoming more conscious and mindful about your life and your surroundings. This means breaking through your common surface perceptions of the world to appreciate the beauty of hearing a bird chirp in a nearby tree or what the first bite of your lunchtime Pret TRULY tastes like.
This also begins to build some critical distance between yourself and the anxieties that can consume us during our 21st century mile-a-minute lives. You begin to notice your feelings of sadness or anxiety rather than being afflicted by them unconsciously. You can examine them in the cold light of day. Soon, they begin to lose some of their consuming power.
My life has been changed for the better by leaving New Year’s resolutions behind. Trying a new activity every day reveals the sheer variety of different wellbeing activities out there. And when you start trying them out you realise how easy it is to try new things. I was a beginner at many activities and I never felt out of place. While a new activity a day is not sustainable, I would recommend that everyone tries at least one new wellbeing activity in January and sets aside time for themselves every week.
Throughout our 31 days we have also been raising money for a men’s mental health charity which aligns with this philosophy of taking simple steps to make you feel better about things. Men Walk Talk is a grassroots charity aiming to support mental health in men of all ages by engaging them in walking groups, encouraging chat about how you’re feeling, and signposting to specialist support for those who may benefit.
Now that I’ve stopped it seems obvious that making a New Year’s resolution is like hammering the button that brings the lift over and over again. It makes no difference but you just keep on doing it. So, this project has made me make one final New Year’s resolution. Never again will I punish myself with a New Year’s resolution.