Wishing for a better year

2016 has been labeled as “the worst year ever,” “cataclysmic,” and “cursed.” Over the past week newspapers, TV shows, and blogs have published year in review articles listing each death, political scandal, and terror attack that made this year so incredibly awful.

I have the ultimate year in review in my front yard. Each year, thousands of people flock to a festival of lights in Tucson, Arizona. For two weeks, they walk through a neighborhood called Winterhaven to enjoy holiday yard displays, kiss under mistletoe and escape reality. When the happy crowds get to my house, they are asked to reflect and re-center. With only the simple instructions “Write Your Wish,” the Wishing Tree has been the home of Tucson’s hopes, dreams, fears, and confessions for 17 years.

What started as a 7th grade science fair project has turned into a tradition. In the year 2000, the news media focused on materialism in the new millennium. Commentaries like “America and the new gilded age” and “Life, Liberty, and the Pursuit of Cheap Stuff” were common. As a 12-year-old, I was skeptical, and decided to study what people wish for during the most consumeristic time of the year Christmas. So, I set out paper, pens and staplers and asked people to write what they wish for and staple it on to the Aleppo pine tree in my front yard. Of the nearly 2,800 wishes made that year, 73% were non-materialistic, and people tended to wish for others more than themselves.

After the onslaught of negative events such as the Zika outbreak, celebrity deaths, email hacks, nightclub shooting, videos of police brutality, Flint water crisis, and civilian deaths in Syria in 2016, one might expect that the wishes would be dark, that there would be more anger and hate than in the past. And, there are a decent number that reflect the general gloom of the past year: “I wish that 2017 is less of a hot mess than 2016,” “I wish that the politicians do their job,” “RIP Aleppo,” “Please make Trump not hurt us” and “Peace for ALL regardless of race, color, or religion.”

However, the dominant message emanating from the tree’s nearly 10,000 wishes is one of hope, resilience, and normalcy:

“I wish my boyfriend would propose.”

“I wish for my mom’s cancer to go away.”

“I wish for a baby girl.”

“I wish I could see my dad this year.”

“I wish for my family to be happy.”

So normal, that it appears that the top wishes for 2016 are roughly the same as they were in the year 2000: Love, Peace, Health, and Happiness.

That our daily lives are largely unaffected by national and world events comes as no surprise to social psychologists. The ability to predict how much an event will impact your emotional state in the future is known as affective forecasting, and people are pretty bad at it. Studies show that people tend to overestimate how much an event will impact their emotions, mostly due to their inability to anticipate what else might demand their attention in the future. This was true for wide reaching events, such as the failure of one’s preferred political candidate, as well more mundane events like one’s favorite sports team losing.

In some ways, the evidence that major world events have little bearing on the average person is depressing. In others, it is a heartening display of our resilience as a human race, and how, no matter what, we will always strive and hope for better for our family, our communities, and ourselves.

So just remember, while the talk show hosts and news anchors cite all of the reasons that 2016 will go down as the worst year ever, it probably won’t affect your happiness next week.

Liz Baker is Deputy Director at SARSEF: Southern Arizona Research, Science and Engineering Foundation and a Tucson Public Voices Fellow with the Op Ed Project