I associate early January with a sort of Sunday-evening melancholy. The eager possibility of countless ways to spend free time gives way to the resignation of returning to responsibility, and with it, the regrets of daydreams un-lived. Every December, I’m spinning with plans of gingerbread houses, cozy familial chats, light displays, gifts received with joyous exclamations of “You know me so well!” (and the corresponding Instagram posts, naturally). Every January, I lament the cookies, family bonding and snowmen that will have to wait until next holiday season. You might recognize this pre-nostalgia feeling at the close of summer the months leading up to graduations, or at the precipice of a big life change.
So: how to combat the January blues in all its variations? I’ve found a concept from Acceptance and Commitment Therapy (ACT), wonderfully outlined in Russ Harris’s ACT Made Simple, very helpful. ACT distinguishes between values and goals. Goals, as you may have heard, are SMART: specific, measurable, achievable, realistic and time-sensitive. Goals may be helpful for finishing assignments on time or tracking progress when learning a complex skill, but as an outlook on life, they’re pretty discouraging. Ever set a big, lofty goal, make lots of plans for how you’ll achieve it, take the first step or several, then give up because it’s too daunting or unsustainable? Me, too (cutting down my own Christmas tree this year, anyone?) Goals tend to draw our focus to the distance between where we are and where we want to be, thus emphasizing our shortcomings. If my goal is to explore five new places this summer and I only venture to three, I haven’t broadened my horizons—I’ve failed.
In contrast, if goals are like traveling to California, values are like traveling west. Values orient us in the direction we want to live, and no matter how far away we may be from a value at any time, we can always take a step in that direction. The intention to explore new places, for example, may represent a value of adventure. Even if I haven’t reached my swimming-hole quota for the summer, every meal at a new restaurant or detour to a new scenic view is a moment of alignment with my values.
Values also offer the benefit of having no due date. Because they are not time-sensitive or specific like goals, the end of the holiday season need not mean that my values have to hibernate until next December. Consider the plans—realized or unrealized—that you had for the holidays. What values do they embody? My visions of fireside chats, baking cookies and well-chosen gifts represent values of leisure, connection, and generosity, for example. The end of the year may change the Starbucks menu, but there are countless ways for me to live out these values year-round. So next time you find yourself discouraged at having fallen short, or nostalgic about a less-than-perfect vacation, forget California—and take one step west.