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Can we feel more hopeful in 2022?

Experts are optimistic about the new year, even as they don't expect things to return exactly to the way they were before the pandemic.
"In this mess there is a silver lining and if we can just see it, recognize it and begin to nurture and strengthen it, then I think we have a lot to look forward to," one mental health expert said.
"In this mess there is a silver lining and if we can just see it, recognize it and begin to nurture and strengthen it, then I think we have a lot to look forward to," one mental health expert said.TODAY Illustration / Getty Images
/ Source: TODAY

Will 2022 be the year when things finally turn around for a planet exhausted by the pandemic?

There may be nowhere to go but up for many people already.

Half of Americans called 2021 the “worst year of their lives so far,” according to a survey of 1,000 adults conducted this month by OnePoll. But 7 in 10 were optimistic 2022 would be an improvement.

There are reasons to be hopeful.

COVID-19 isn’t going away, but doctors now have many more tools to fight it, including the first antiviral pills in the U.S. to treat the disease, said Dr. Amesh Adalja, a senior scholar at the Johns Hopkins University Center for Health Security in Baltimore.

The omicron variant sweeping the world appears to be milder and less likely to land people in the hospital than previous variants, resulting in illness that can resemble the common cold — at least for those who are up to date on their vaccines.

“People have to realize that it’s never going to be 2019 again. It’s never going to be a zero COVID risk in any activity,” Adalja told TODAY.

“(But) we’re learning more about this virus every day. So yes, I’m more hopeful. I’m more hopeful that we’ll make this a tamer version of COVID-19 with all the tools, with all the knowledge that we’ve gained the last two years.”

Mental health experts — who have wearily watched a global rise in depression and anxiety as a result of the COVID-19 pandemic — were optimistic, too, even as they didn’t expect things to return exactly to the way they were before the crisis.

“Many people might not be (hopeful), which is understandable because they might be caught in the web of chaos and uncertainty and suffering that is so prevalent today,” said psychologist Richard Davidson, founder and director of the Center for Healthy Minds at the University of Wisconsin–Madison.

“But in this mess there is a silver lining and if we can just see it, recognize it and begin to nurture and strengthen it, then I think we have a lot to look forward to.”

The trajectory humanity was on before COVID-19 “was not great,” he explained, so the opportunity now is to recognize this as a moment of a possible recalibration — more work-life balance, a readjusting of priorities and a new baseline that’s more health promoting and conducive to human flourishing.

“What’s happened in the pandemic, certainly it’s been extremely challenging for probably everyone, but I think it’s also helped us realize what’s really important,” said Elizabeth Lombardo, a psychologist based in Chicago and author of “Get Out of the Red Zone: Transform Your Stress and Optimize True Success.”

“What I’m hopeful for is that people will apply what they learned and start using that more. Maybe it’s connecting on a deeper level with friends … maybe making sleep a priority.”

But the ongoing uncertainty can lead to learned helplessness — a state of mind where people believe there’s nothing they can do to make a situation better, so they stop trying, Lombardo said. She emphasized hopefulness is a matter of what people say to themselves, not external circumstances.

Coping with uncertainty:

Mental health is “really rotten” right now — a mental health crisis that needs to be taken seriously, Davidson warned.

All of us already have daily habits that are good for our physical health — such as spending a few minutes every day brushing our teeth, he noted.

“And yet we typically don’t spend that much time nurturing our mind every day,” Davidson said. “This is a wake-up call. We need to care for our minds in the same way that we care for our teeth and other parts of our body.”

He was a fan of active meditations that can be done with the help of apps, including the one affiliated with the Center for Healthy Minds.

It's key to practice every day — just like the tooth-brushing habit — but those few minutes done while walking, cleaning the house or commuting can be enormously valuable, he said.

One simple exercise Davidson recommended was a brief gratitude practice at meal times: Just before you eat, think of all the people who made the food on your table possible, from the farmers and grocery store clerks to the person who prepared the dish.

“When you begin to reflect on all of the interconnected networks of people that are essential in enabling you to eat a meal, it’s quite humbling,” he said. “Simply allowing a sense of appreciation to emerge for that is enormously helpful. It’s kind of an elixir for the mind and for the heart.”

How to manage stress:

Lombardo recommended people gauge their stress level on a scale from 1 to 10. If they’re at a 7 or higher, they’re in the red zone, where they think, “It’s never going to get better, my life is horrible, there’s no hope,” she said.

To get out of the red zone, Lombardo advised the following steps, which make up the acronym HELM:

Halt movement in your mouth: Avoid saying things or eating things you’ll regret later.

Exercise: Move your body to release biochemical effects that allow us to see things in a more positive light.

Laugh: Watching funny videos or any other activity that elicits laughter helps us get out of the red zone.

Music: Listening to music has a very powerful impact on our emotions, so it may be helpful to put together a “get out of the red zone” playlist — songs that remind you of happier times or inspire you to dance around.

Once you’re out of the red zone, continue to manage stress by creating moderately difficult, meaningful goals in your life, Lombardo advised.

“Make it something that you want to do — that will not only help increase your happiness, but it gives you a sense of hope because you have something to look forward to,” she said.

That could be training for a 5K, volunteering to put your problems in perspective, doing a Dry January or perhaps even a Gratitude January — where you focus on and practice gratitude for a month.

Whatever your goal, proceed towards it gradually with small steps that are modest and doable, Davidson added.

“We will change, I believe, in this next year, whether it will return to the way things were before the pandemic or not,” he said.