The last week in December I got a copy of Health magazine in the mail. The issue was filled with all the usual articles about all the typical New Year’s resolutions—getting better sleep, eating more vegetables, starting a fitness regimen, investing an extra hour a day in a skincare routine, and finally getting around to meditating. And on the cover, the headline summed it up this way: 2019—“The Year of You.”
This phrase just about captures our current culture’s obsession with self-improvement. It’s all about taking time for yourself, treating yourself, engaging in self-care and self-reflection. Indeed, the $4.2 trillion per year global wellness industry—a mass merger of the beauty industry, the self-help movement, the health and fitness movement, and the alternative medicine movement—invites you to spend ever-more time and money, and invest in ever-more exotic products and experiences, in order to become that end-of-history evolution of the species known as “your best self.”
Now, don’t get me wrong. I’m not one of those people who thinks this entire industry is a bunch of hogwash. On the contrary. I’ve experienced a lot of healing and—I’ll admit it, self-improvement—by joining ranks with the wellness gurus. But this year, something about that phrase, “the year of you” struck a sour note in me.
Because for as much time and money as we’re spending on self-improvement, in America many of our health outcomes are worse than ever, and loneliness, depression, and despair are growing at a breakneck pace. Some might argue that those most affected are the unfortunate souls such as myself who can’t afford a personal trainer, a monthly massage, or a CSA subscription. And there is some truth to this claim. But the broader fact is that America’s hole-in-the-soul epidemics are affecting everyone—across race, class, geographic, and socioeconomic divides. Our hyper-individualistic focus on the self is somehow missing the mark in terms of our deepest unmet needs.
And so as I ponder my New Year’s resolutions for 2019, I plan to travel a different road. Though I could stand to lose a little weight, I won’t be focusing my energy on exercise. And though I would benefit from stripping more sugar and carbs out of my diet, I’ll not be engaging in cleanses and food protocols. I won’t be taking my dream vacation, or signing up for a life coaching program. I plan to improve myself in 2019 by focusing on other people. I hope to make 2019 not the year of me, but the year of you. The year of rebuilding community.
There’s definitely an element of self-interest in this plan, I’ll be honest. I’m a little lonely myself. I’ve done my time battling depression. And while I wouldn’t necessarily say I struggle with despair, I do have my addictions and numbing routines, just like everyone else. And so I’m certainly doing this in part because I hope that reconnecting will be good for me. And it should be. In fact, the research is quite clear that investing in social connection has large and measurable effects on emotional well-being and even physical health.
But there’s also something more that I’m after. Because I’m not just concerned about my own future, and the ways in which my own life can be better. I’m also deeply worried about the future of this nation, and I spend a lot of time thinking about how the shared life of our society can be better. I’m concerned that if we don’t begin to reconnect with each other in meaningful and life-giving ways, we’re doomed to keep up and intensify all the nasty infighting we winced our way through in 2018. And we’re likely to see rates of loneliness, suicide, and violence continue to grow.
New York Times columnist and commentator David Brooks, who has recently founded Weave: The Social Fabric Project, of which I am a part, has called our current national moment “a silent Pearl Harbor.” “There are certain moments in history that demand extra gifts to our country and to our society,” he says, and this is one of them. There is an urgent need today for each and every one of us to figure out what we can do to help America find its way out of this mess. To restore a shared sense of identity and purpose, a vibrant sense of community, and a belief that we rise or fall together. If we don’t, we’ll be more likely than any generation in history to die early and alone—and we could very well end up taking our democracy down with us.
And so begins my year-long journey of reconnecting with others, and engaging in deliberate challenges and habits that will put me on the path to relationship. It’s easy to feel helpless in the face of so many personal, social, and societal problems. But I have a hunch that it’s also just as easy to take action—in small but meaningful ways that can add up to dramatic changes, just as reliably as any exercise routine or skincare regimen can.
And so it begins. 2019 is my year of you, America.