I’ve always maintained that whatever huge event crashes into my life uninvited – whether depression, death, redundancy, illness, divorce or other trauma – it will be the little things that cumulatively make me feel better in the long run, not some grand gestures ill-advisedly made for their own sake. “Never make life-changing decisions at life-changing times” has always been my steadfast rule and, despite enjoying a happy personal life this past year, I’ve lately found this to be as pertinent as ever. There have been occasions when the world around me has felt too unfamiliar for comfort, when things have seemed so completely scary and chaotic that I need tiny, outwardly meaningless things to help me feel human. While the big stuff in my life has mercifully remained constant, I’ve made some small tweaks and promises to myself that have proved so life-changing I’ve decided to make them permanent.
Have more baths
No, not in the manner of those revolting people who claim hair is self-cleaning. I have simply exchanged a couple of morning showers per week for long evening baths and it has proved extremely happy-making. I lock the door, pour in some bubbles (current squeeze: Waitrose’s brilliant and bargainous Ginger & Clementine Bath Foam), put on an old Desert Island Discs or Savage Love podcast and relax. It’s part of my ongoing effort to turn the functional into the pleasurable, to reclaim my life from my schedule of responsibilities, to slow the hell down. Keeping clean has become the highlight of my day.
Spend time at the sea whenever possible
OK, so I live by the sea and consider it vital to my mental health, but I’m not suggesting everyone should sell up and move to Brighton (not least because Chris Grayling and the Southern Rail execs have made it a living hell for commuters). But I do think it’s hugely beneficial to make getting on the train or into the car to go and look at some sea a priority, at least a couple of times a year. My own decision to stand and stare at it weekly, regardless of whatever else is going on, has been life-changing. When global news is horrific, or when people seemingly all around you are being unkind, stupid or mean, the sight of the sea – vast, elemental, untameable, in charge – and the knowledge that it could swallow us all whole, if it wanted, is necessarily humbling and surprisingly comforting.
Avoid rolling news
I’ve seen the headline; I’ve familiarised myself with the facts. Inevitably, it will reach the point where literally nothing is developing but my anxiety. After the presidential election, I made the decision to not watch rolling news for more than 30 minutes at a time and I am much calmer as a result. A slice of toast and an episode of Broad City is a much more constructive use of my time than watching Kay Burley desperately treading water by interviewing the man who welded the ballot box.
All any of us can do is clean our own side of the street and look out for others where possible
Don’t accept invitations you’ll resent
2016 was the year I finally accepted that I don’t have enough time to see the people I really love, never mind those I don’t, and that it’s much more polite, thoughtful and realistic to turn down any invitation I will, at some point, long to cancel. I have a close set of friends I need to see every couple of months and a partner I love being alone with. When free time is so scant, there’s simply no point feigning enthusiasm for tier-two engagements, only to spend the next six weeks unfairly resenting the commitment to attend.
Treat dresses like a football team
On the same tip, clothing. I have way too much. So, I’ve made the gradual decision to turn the job of wardrobe mistress into that of football-club manager. This means that it’s no longer enough to be something that looks great/fits/comes at the right price. It has to justify its place on the squad. For example, would I really play the ASOS shirt dress over the & Other Stories with the Peter Pan collar? Nope. Will I ever bench the Bella Freud for the Boden? If an occasion demands a cosy sweater dress, then would I ever pull on the green M&S, rather than my beloved black Hush?
I only have one body, a limited number of nights out, smart lunches, important meetings and events in one year, and already too many wardrobe options for each. There’s no justification for buying anything for a position that’s already better occupied by another frock. All new garments must either fill an empty gap or be so extraordinary as to be a once-in-a-lifetime signing.
Make my own coffee
It emerged in 2016 that paper coffee cups are not, as we’d all assumed, recyclable (just one in a thousand is recycled because the plastic laminate on the cardboard is too hard to remove). And so, all along, while I’d been turning my nose up at plastic bottled water, I’d been happily slurping a daily takeaway coffee and contributing to the problem. So I treated myself to a thermal cup from Bodum and now take a homemade cup of tea or coffee everywhere – to school, on the train, on dog walks or long car journeys. It’s nice to feel I’m not contributing to landfill and gratifying to find my coffee is still hot, 100 miles later. I shove the weekly tenner I save into the…
Takeaway savings account
I’m a renowned glutton, so, in 2015 and 2016, the arrival of Deliveroo, Hungry House and Just Eat – services that turned all my favourite restaurants into takeaway joints – seemed to answer my prayers. But as I crept, fatter and poorer, towards 2017, I realised the honeymoon between me and the overworked, overpedalled and underpaid delivery man was over. And so, around mid-October, I decided that every time I craved a takeaway on a weeknight (my Friday-night curry is precious and has been ringfenced), I would open my bank account app instead of Deliveroo, immediately transfer £30 into my savings account, then decide what to cook.
Charge your phone in a different room
This summer, I made the, er, radical decision to keep only one iPhone charger permanently plugged into a bedside socket. This has changed my life hugely, in that it means I plug in my phone when my long working day is over and my evening of eating, chatting and telly-watching can begin, uninterrupted by the buzzing, pinging, flashing of constant updates. I adore my phone, I can’t live without it, but my decision to exclude it for a few hours a day is an irreversible imperative that allows my poor, overworked synapses to metaphorically put up their feet with a Horlicks. Now I just need the rest of the family to follow my lead.
Accepting what I can and can’t control
The life-affecting things I can control: my voting, my engagement with issues that matter, my charitable contributions, my parenting, my part in my friendships, my behaviour towards strangers. I can’t do anything directly about terrorism, nor about the fact that a sociopath is about to move into the White House, nor that people think it’s suddenly OK to be an openly racist, fact-averse, misogynistic, relentlessly ill-mannered, outlandish conspiracy theorist. All any of us can do is clean our own side of the street and look out for others where possible. This was 2016’s hardest lesson to learn. But it’s a mental change I’ve had to embrace for the sake of my continued sanity. I wish you a happy, healthy, peaceful new year.