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How the pandemic is shaping our 2021 resolutions — and what experts want you to keep in mind

As the unprecedented year of 2020 comes to a close, many are reflecting on how their lives have been upended. Just like this year has been different than what many of us had planned, the classic tradition of New Year’s resolutions will look a bit different than it normally does.

For some, making a resolution will mean looking ahead to the hopeful end of this pandemic. For others, it will be about focusing on what’s important during a time when the realities of sickness and death have become a constant low hum throughout the day.

Dr. Jessi Gold of Washington University School of Medicine in Saint Louis said the pandemic may be affecting the way people think and plan, even when they don’t notice.

“The threat of death and dying I think does come into it, probably in more ways than [people] realize,” she said.

This factor alone makes it more difficult to make plans, especially when it’s hard to know what tomorrow may bring. But she added that, to maintain a resilient mindset, it’s still important to think ahead and find ways to find joy in life.

“I think it’s really important that, in a year of being let down over and over and not being able to check things off a to do list, and consistently feeling inefficient, that we learn to find efficiency and feel good about ourselves,” Gold said. “If we’re going to bother making resolutions, they should help us out.”

The PBS NewsHour spoke to people across the country about the resolutions they were making this year, and asked experts what tips we should keep in mind for setting realistic goals as we head toward 2021.

The need for resolutions

A number of people told the NewsHour they felt the need to create resolutions for 2021, even though they have generally avoided them in previous years.

A recent IPSOS poll found that nearly two in five Americans have prepared a resolution for 2021, with nearly three-quarters of those people saying the pandemic has shaped the goals they’re making for next year.

Young Americans and those with children were more likely to have resolutions, the poll found. Taylor believes this newfound interest in resolutions is due in part to people feeling reflective about the year behind them. The unpredictability of last year may have hit hard and will drive some to seek more resiliency in 2021.

“I think this is a highly unusual time when people have been required to cope with something that they had no preparation for or no experience before,” said Dr. Steven Taylor, author of “The Psychology of Pandemics.”

Historian Frank Snowden, author of “Epidemics and Society,” thinks this fresh need for resolutions suggests people have felt a distinct change over the course of the year, and that some may feel the need to permanently adjust themselves to that shift.

“Even though people want to go back to the past … there’s a part of them that realizes this really marks a break with the past, something really fundamental happened this year,” he said. “And that thought means that for the next year, they want to be much more mindful.”

Making plans for the long-term, not the short-term

Many of the resolutions people shared with the NewsHour contained hopeful plans for when the COVID-19 pandemic ends — things like going to restaurants, traveling and simply going outside without worry seem to be top priorities.

Andrea DeCou, 57, said she had a renewed purpose to “really enjoy all of the things I haven’t during the pandemic” — simple things like “teaching students in person, eating in a restaurant, seeing a movie or live performance in a theater … heck, riding a bus or light rail train without fear of COVID.”

As we approach nearly a full year of this pandemic in the U.S., both Pfizer and Moderna have received approval to distribute their vaccines across the country, and more than 1 million people have already been vaccinated, news that Gold believes marks a hopeful spot in this dim winter season.

“Having something tangible you can pin your hat on, like a vaccine timetable, is quite comforting,” Gold said.

She also explained that having a set end point can make it easier to curb anxiety born from prolonged uncertainty. The anticipated wider distribution of the vaccine early next year offers that “modicum of hope,” Gold said.

READ MORE: How to help kids build resilience amid COVID-19 chaos

Still, it will take time for the vaccine to reach everyone. So it’s wise to keep that timetable in mind when making plans, and keep in mind that even widespread vaccination may not mean life will get back to normal the way we knew it, Snowden said.

“Most people want to go back to normal, unfortunately I don’t think that’s going to be possible,” he said. “It’s going to take a while no matter what.”

Snowden said that people should feel free to set goals like writing a book for 2021, but to still feel accomplished even if they are not completed until years from now.

This concept was one echoed by many who spoke to the NewsHour, including Angelica Mitchell, 43, who said resolutions are “like making promises you don’t keep.” Instead, she likes the idea of an intentions list. “I like the ring of that,” she said. “I want to be intentional about living joyfully, humbly, and sacrificially.”

The rush to return to normalcy may also prevent people from thinking about the ways society can prepare for future disasters, Snowden added.

“I think [the vaccine] is leading us prematurely to stop thinking about the long term issues and just to focus all of our attention on trying to rush back to life as it was, which I think would be a mistake,” he said.

Turning the focus outward

Beyond things like traveling and visiting restaurants again, many respondents said they wanted to focus outside of themselves, on things like connecting with family and giving to others, with a newfound urgency.

“[Last year’s resolutions] were about me,” Virgil Hare, 54, said. “This time, it’s about us!”

Because of the limitations imposed by the pandemic, Berman said she’s seen many people putting the effort into finding ways to maintain some traditions and see their loved ones.

“I’ve heard people getting pretty creative about how they might spend [time] with their family members,” she said.

Gold suspects this shift in priorities is because the pandemic prevented access to many things that some may take for granted.

“When you’re told you can’t see your family, you think a lot more about what that means to you,” she said.

This could ring especially true for the many people who have lost family members to COVID-19.

More than 330,000 people have died from the coronavirus, and, according to a study by the University of Southern California, for every person lost during the pandemic, nine people are left behind to grieve.

“There’s a great sense of loneliness out there,” Snowden said.

Many respondents mentioned the desire to help their community and people around them.

Ross Elfline, 47, said he wanted to work better within the different communities in his life, “to better understand and then craft a vision for what it means to form a ‘we’ within our increasingly diverse world,” though he also recognized the challenges of doing so virtually.

“How does one achieve this concept of a ‘we,’ or even discuss it actively, when proximity is so difficult? Such hard conversations require being together. But we’ll have to resort to Zoom now.”

This desire can be found even in the reason why people stress about the virus. A survey published by Translational Psychiatry found that worries about passing the infection on to family (48.5 percent) or strangers (36 percent) outweighed worries of contracting the virus themselves (nearly 20 percent).

Taylor said that the desire to help one another is well-documented in previous pandemics and disasters in history, though Snowden said crises often bring out all extremes of human behavior.

“If you believe that you’re doing your bit to help bring this pandemic to an end by acting altruistically, then that’s not only good for the people you help, but good for your own mental health,” Taylor said.

In terms of self-preservation, it makes sense for people to lean towards helping their community, which can benefit everyone, Berman said, including the person doing the helping.

“You’re giving and hoping to make the world better,” she said. “Especially in a pandemic, if everyone is doing better, then the world is a healthier place.”

Giovanni Tortorici, 22, said he planned to focus less “on any kind of exercise or quick-fix, but things that I can do to plant the seeds for more fruitful relationships and moments as I move forward in life.”

Keeping it basic

The pandemic has forced many people to focus on surviving each day, let alone the year ahead. Such a dramatic change undoubtedly affected many big plans for the year.

Sue Graf, 66, said she didn’t think she’d be spending her early years of retirement “changing my behavior to keep from getting a very infectious disease.” She also said her goal for 2021 is simply to stay alive.

The stress from worrying about a global pandemic is also magnified by new economic strains. An estimated 12.6 million people are unemployed in the U.S., and experts say many more are struggling to make ends meet. And while the latest coronavirus relief bill was signed by President Donald Trump on Sunday, Congress took months negotiating what it should entail, and some of the provisions will expire again in a matter of weeks.

Berman believes that’s why, with such a broad set of stressors, people are asking: “What are the basics that we need to feel safe and secure?”

Learning how to cope with the pandemic lifestyle can compel people to simplify their plans and goals for the coming year, whether that means developing new plans entirely, or focusing on the things that help get through the day.

“Many of us are not used to grounding ourselves that way,” Berman said.

Berman recommends thinking about the things that you’ve missed over the last few months and find ways to emulate them around the house, as a small way to keep up with the things you enjoy.

No matter what the goals are, resolutions can be a way to find agency in a time that feels out of your hands.

“The things we can control are in ourselves,” she said. “We can’t control the pandemic … but we can change our values and what we’re going to accomplish in a year.”