The Familiar Strange

This New Year, Think About Your Social Health Too

Feeling ‘well’ can mean many different things. Generally, though, intentions still count, and even more powerful are the social connections we feel along the way.

“That will be next year’s project”, say many of us. “By then, I’ll be ready for it”, we might add. These kinds of statements also featured in several conversations with my ethnographic participants who had chronic schizophrenia. Similar to chats I could be having with anybody, but also because my fieldsite was in a healthcare setting, distillments of “now” and “later” behaviours often related to notions of ‘health’.

Sometimes this was about more typical aspirations of health. One patient announced to me in August 2015 his intention to start vaping instead of smoking come January 2016. I was surprised to learn that he did indeed follow through with his goal, and when we parted ways in September 2016 he was still contentedly using e-cigarettes. I was surprised because it was more than I had observed in most people I know, who tend to return to their previous habits once the gloss of the new year wears off.  What it meant for most of my participants to be ‘healthy’, however, was partly about the intentionality. 

The agentic power behind having any kind of intention is important. Most of us live with intentions to maintain or change something about our current ways and habits. Intentions toward the future tend to be either be about what one felt ‘healthy’ about that day, or what one might do to feel ‘healthier’ in a rather stretchable ‘tomorrow’. Intention indicates a sense of self-efficacy and hopefulness toward the future (no matter the ambiguity); to be able to continue with what is familiar and safe, or to feel able to introduce some novelty. As I have written about more formally, chronic schizophrenia patients in my study were active and creative participants in the making of their health. And, like anybody, they also drew on social appropriations of when to try something new.

Should we reconcile the tides rather than begin again?

New year’s resolution rituals exemplify the social affirmations that come with novelty and starting afresh. While not all of us perceive of time in such linear ways that mark beginnings and endings of calendar years (e.g. those living on Wangkumarra land in Australia), the everyday experiences of the sun rising and setting, waking up and falling asleep, and then marking our lives by the calendar-dated achievements and years that pass – rather than the little moments in between – is the norm in Western societies.

To have a plan going into the next calendar year not only provides plenty of conversation material and opportunities for redemption, these resolutions remind us that we are not alone in our individual anguishes about what more should be continued, subtracted or added as we move forward in time.

The focus on a need to improve, however, is not always helpful. Design anthropologist Elizabeth Tunstall has proposed that we drop New Year’s Resolutions altogether, in favour of New Year’s Reconciliations, that will foster ‘self-acceptance’ instead. While I like this sentiment, I am also cautious of suggesting it for everyone, especially if you don’t have the appropriate social supports in place to reconcile your past.

At a more primal level, we may benefit from attending to what gives our lives meaning in the immediate sense. After all, these meanings are built upon the experiential foundations that came before – an indirect reconciliation of the tides. I am writing this blog because, as 2017 folded into 2018, I found myself drawing on something I have learned from my ethnographic participants.

Companionship during liminal times  

For people who are undergoing multiple medical treatments, experiences of present-time stability are not taken for granted. I now appreciate my own time, and health, in similar ways. After some anticipated celebratory exchanges following the countdown to 12am, I spent my New Year’s Day not thinking about the meaning of the 1st of January. I merely embraced an unstructured day of very simple pleasures, with less focus on what happened yesterday or what would happen tomorrow. Having danced into the early hours, and thus requiring a later start to daylight activities anyway, I resumed a day of no plans, and there was no mentioning of new year’s resolutions. Critically, though, I was in the company of others who had known me a long time. We sat in the sunshine, bathed in the ocean, giggled and enjoyed very open conversations – over tea, cheese, wine, music. 

While I know that most of these experiences were just my holiday privileges, I also know that the pleasure and novelty came in the easy sharing of such simple pleasures, and feeling able to retreat back to my own company whenever I wanted to. The companionship and environment I had going into the new year felt nice because of nostalgic connections and moments that also felt like my own despite being shared. The experience was reconcilement but only in a temporal sense – a kind of catharsis facilitated by familiar but shorter-term social company. Like my ethnographic participants spoke to me about, I was experiencing what felt like a healthy balance between the presence and absence of others.

A ‘healthy’ new year is not just about a new you (or your standard health habits)

In taking up resolutions or reconciliations to punctuate your experiences in 2018, returning to what will largely be more structured time on your own, many of you will be thinking about how to maintain or improve your ‘health’. To live, if not ‘thrive’, through this next year. So I want to reinforce the above and often-overlooked aspect of ‘health’: ‘Social’ health.

Our sense of connectedness to others and the world impacts other areas of our health, such that it is not just about merely changing our individual behaviours. The World Health Organisation recognises that experiences of ‘social cohesion’, referring to a quality support network in terms of ‘trust, mutual obligation and respect’, is a protective factor against poor health and premature death, including survival following a heart attack. What’s more, smoking and feelings of loneliness are equally likely to cause heart disease. Finally, what people regret on their deathbeds tends to concern the perceived lack of quality time spent with other people

Despite their incompleteness, new year’s resolutions and reconciliations toward health checks and goals reflect both individual intentionality and social sentiments. Like all rituals, these serve to reground and connect people with the worlds around them. But if you are wanting to improve your ‘health’ this year, you might first think about the times when you have experienced a sense of well-being. While it might have been fleeting, there’s a good chance you felt it with some connection to others or the world around you. Finding and then appreciating a balanced ‘health’ by proxy of this connectedness need not be shackled to milestones in linear time.   

                                                                                                          [Image by Julia Brown]