Friday, 30 December 2016

New year's niceness

It's about that time of year when we all start getting a bit John and Yoko-ish about life – you know what I mean, the inevitable "Another year over, and what have you done?" period of reflection. For me, this invariably means unearthing my list of resolutions, set 12 months ago in a fit of optimism in some long forgotten notebook, and seeing just how many of them I failed to keep.

Needless to say, contrary to my optimistic predictions, I didn't use each week of 2016 to make my way through the BFI's 50 best films of all time – I'm still every inch the heathen who rewatches Love Actually for the 75th time while Citizen Kane continues to go unwatched. Despite my grand, Nigella-inspired dreams, my skills in the kitchen still leave a lot to be desired. And while I did, to be fair, give my running regime a pretty good stab, even that's fallen by the wayside recently, thanks to a dodgy knee and an inherent laziness that the ever darkening evenings make it almost impossible not to give into.

New year's resolutions are, by their very nature, aspirational to the point of ridiculous. Flipping your calendar over to the month of January won't alter the fabric of the universe – and however much of a flourish you do it with, it's unlikely to mean carbs suddenly lose their appeal. But even still, there's something irresistible about the idea of fresh starts and second chances that resolutions inspire.

It goes back, I think, to that feeling we relished as kids, when we turned up to school after the summer holidays with a bunch of idealistic expectations to match our boxfresh black leather shoes and our shiny WH Smith-purchased pencil cases. That boy who didn't know you existed last year would suddenly fall in love with you, despite your unchanged dodgy fringe and train-track braces. The teacher who inexplicably hated you would, of course, see the error of his ways and stop picking on you when you clearly didn't know the answer in Maths. Those spots on your chin? Ha! They'd be a thing of the past.

To borrow a phrase from the Rolling Stones – and as anyone who went through the horror show that was being a teenager can attest – you can't always get what you want. Which is precisely why this year, I'm taking a different approach to my resolutions. Gone are the false promises that would rely on a personality transplant, a sudden windfall, or a level of willpower that I already know, deep down, I'll never have. Instead, I'm taking inspiration from a podcast that I listened to recently – one in which the presenter shared the attainable resolution she makes year in, year out. Namely: "To try and be a nicer person, every year."

Yes, yes, I know. We've all been programmed from a young age to shudder at the word 'nice'. The way our English teachers spoke about it, you'd have been forgiven for thinking you could get more marks for describing your holiday as "the shit" than the dreaded n-word. 'Nice' is like the One Show of the linguistic world – fairly inoffensive, and tolerable every now and then, but you wouldn't go out of your way to factor it into your viewing schedule – or vocabulary, in this case. 'Nice' doesn't exactly conjure images of fun or excitement. And if I'm being perfectly honest, people who never appear anything but sweetness and light always seem a bit suspect to me. No one can be nice, 24/7.

But the more time I spend in the world, the more I realise that just like everything from sexuality to political beliefs, niceness is on a spectrum – and it's always better to err on the nicer end of it. I'm definitely not the first to come to this realisation – and at this particular time of year, too. As festive films from It's A Wonderful Life to Miracle on 34th Street so aptly demonstrate, believing in the good in people and striving for this goodness yourself comes into particular focus in December.

I experienced this first hand last week, when I went to see what has to be the most famous festive advert for niceness of them all, A Christmas Carol. The film's didactic message isn't exactly subtle – but that doesn't make it any less effective. Watching Scrooge's transformation from a grumpy old miser, one with no time for well wishes or festive cheer of any form, into the generous soul who dances around on Christmas day and donates a turkey to Tiny Tim and co, had just the effect that Dickens must have intended.

I stepped out onto the South Bank and into the path of a man selling The Big Issue – someone I'd walked past countless times without ever stopping – and promptly bought one. "I'm glad I came out tonight," he told me. "Yesterday I barely sold a copy, but today I've sold four in the first ten minutes." I'm not embarrassed to say the virtuous feeling this gave me is one I'm quite keen to repeat.

As the past year has shown, no one knows quite what the new year is likely to bring. If you'd told me when it started that by the end of 2016, Theresa May would be Britain's Prime Minister, Donald Trump would be America's President Elect and Gary Lineker would be hailed a liberal hero, I'd have pointed you in the direction of the nearest doctor. Life is unpredictable, and resolutions are, as a result, pretty hard to keep.

But unlike gym memberships or extreme diets, deciding to be a bit nicer won't burn a hole in your wallet or cripple you with guilt. You don't even need a list – just a bit of kindness, a smattering of compassion, and a sprinkling of care. Perhaps best of all, it also means absolutely no need to make your January a dry one – and I'll definitely drink to that.