Does Having a Word for the Year Help?

Do you have a word for the year, for 2021?

When the year changes, many people like to choose a word that they hope defines the coming year. For example, I have heard people choose words like Focus, Thrive, Abundance, and Joy as their words for the year.

The question is, does having a word for the year make a difference? Does it have any practical benefit, or is it just a bunch of hocus-pocus and New Age charlatanry?[1]

If people choose words for the year with the right intention, this practice can be incredibly beneficial for three reasons.

Reason One: The words we speak change the way we experience the world.

I have been a teacher (or professor) for over 25 years. One of the things teaching has shown me the most is that the words I choose to explain concepts dramatically change the way my students experience what I teach. My words often determine whether students feel inspired or uninspired by it.[2]

If I use vague, ambiguous, unfamiliar, or dull and uninspiring words to explain a subject, my students quickly develop a fear of the subject or lose interest altogether.

On the other hand, if I use clear, familiar, and magical and inspiring words, my students gain confidence and become increasingly interested in the subject.

Of course, life contains both clear and unclear elements, as well as inspiring and uninspiring elements. All these moments belong.

However, if we want our life to feel clear, friendly (familiar), magical, and inspiring, it is really helpful to use as many words like that to describe our life to our self and to describe how we want it to be.

Choosing a meaningful word for the year can help us do that.

Reason Two: The words we think and speak focus our attention on specific parts of life, rather than others.  

Every single day, billions of stimuli bombard your senses. It is humanly impossible for you (or anyone) to focus on all possible stimuli. Our brains and nervous system would implode if we did.

So, you must focus on some stimuli (a very small amount of the total stimuli) and ignore the rest. The words, ideas, and pictures—I’ll call all these thought patterns–that you consciously or unconsciously select are one of the major things that focus your attention.

If you focus on thought patterns that are full of fear, despair, ugliness, and meaningless, you are much more likely to focus on stimuli in the world which matches the thought patterns you have.

Unfortunately, the more you focus on all these despairing stimuli, the more likely you are to miss the bright, hopeful, beautiful, and meaningful things in the world. Such things increase your hope, joy, and purpose.

On the one hand, sometimes we believe that if we focus on good things, we don’t adequately prepare our self to deal with all the horrible stuff out there. (And there is, indeed, some horrible stuff in the world.) Perhaps we believe that we make our self weak by focusing on good things.

We might also believe that if we only focus on good things that we fail to address the problems in the world that need fixing.

I would argue, on the contrary, that continually focusing on negative things is like perpetually punching yourself in the gut. It’s a pretty poor life-preparedness strategy.

A Wiser Strategy

A much wiser strategy is to strengthen and nurture ourself by primarily focusing on the good and beautiful things in the world. And then we have better emotional reserveres to pay attention to some of horrible things in the world for which we need to prepare. Such a focus strategy strengthens our mind, body, and spirit. [3]

And if you want to address problems in the world, it helps to focus on the good and beautiful things in the world to fortify your spirit. Then you can mindfully focus on problems you need to address, and having strengthened your spirit to do so, work on solving them. Many people throughout history have made meditation, contemplative prayer, or reading sacred or spiritual works a part of their morning ritual for this very purpose. It helps them focus and fortifies their spirit to deal with difficult things in the day.

Choosing an effective word for the year can also help you focus on the good and beautiful things to fortify your spirit in this way.

Reason Three: The words we choose nurture or crush our spirit.

There’s a famous Proverb about the magic of words. Maybe you know it: “A word fitly spoken is like apples of gold in settings of silver.”[4]

A fitly spoken word connects us to our deepest human needs in a loving way. We all need to connect with our self and others in a loving way[5]. And we need others to recognize us for our special contribution to the world. In addition, we need hope, joy, and purpose.

Fitly spoken words connect to these needs of ours. You have probably heard people speak such words before. Haver you ever been around someone who makes you feel lighter, more alive, and more joyful?

If you think about that person, you will likely realize that the person praised you authentically, brought humor and energy into the room, and focused everyone on the good things in themselves and their immediate environment.

That’s what fitly spoken words do.

Choosing an effective word for the year is like choosing apples of gold in settings of silver.

How to Choose an Effective Word for the Year

Here’s a process you can use to choose an effective word for 2021:

One: Imagine that 2021 brings good both to you and the whole world. What would a year like that feel like to you?

Two: Choose three to five words that describe what 2021 would feel like if it brought good to both you and the whole world. Don’t worry about words that you think you should choose or words that people would approve of. Choose words that make you feel alive and hopeful. The best words are those that spark something in you.

You may have words that come to you immediately, or you might want some help find them. Here is a list of words, some of which you may find make you feel especially alive and hopeful.

safe                  healthy            caring              hopeful            prosperous       alive

loving              adventurous    playful             spiritual           joyful               peaceful

resilient            resourceful      forgiving         spacious          energetic          exuberant

restful              homey             friendly           hospitable        effective          strong

powerful          flowing            open                curious            inviting            romantic

luxurious         pleasurable      gracious           free                  beautiful          nurturing

sensuous         delicious          light                 connected        creative            thriving

gritty               stylish              subversive        sage                revolutionary    transformative 

You can Use Adjectives, Verbs, or Nouns

You will notice that all the words in the list above are adjectives, but it is certain permissible to choose nouns, verbs, adverbs, adjectives, or any other part of speech you wish for your year.

For example, last year I chose the words interoception (internal sense) and proprioception (external sense). Those may seem like weird words to choose for the year, but last year, I was especially interested in practicing mindfulness and awareness in my everyday life.

Those words helped me focus on doing that. They may not have worked for others, but they made a big difference in my year.

And that’s the point. Your word can be any word or set of words that impact you positively, focus your attention on helpful thing, and serve like apples of gold in settings of silver. So, your word (or words) might be goth, forest, deadlifts, skipping, piano, or serendipity. And your word might not make sense to anyone else, but as long as it makes sense to you and makes you feel more alive, that is an effective word for you.

What do you do with your word?

It’s up to you what you do with your word. You’re the boss. Here are a few suggestions:

You might . . .

Schedule regular time to think about your word and how your life currently does or does not embody it.

Write a list of five to ten practical steps you can take to make your word and your life harmonize more consistently.

Create a piece of artwork about your word.

Discuss your word with a friend over coffee and explore what it means to both of you.

Pray about it and ask for guidance.

Read a book or listen to a podcast that helps you understand your word better.

Those are just a few ideas. I am sure you can think of other ones, too.

(By the way, here’s another great post you can read about choosing a word for the year.)

My Word

I chose the word flourish for 2021. When I think of the word flourish, I think of vibrance, growth and vividness. I want these characteristics to mark all the major areas of my life. This month I am going to take some time to imagine what each of the major areas of my life would look like if they were flourishing—and I know some of them already are. And then I will choose one or two practical steps I can take to flourish more.

What’s your word for 2021? I would love to hear about it. Or I would love to hear below about words you have chosen in the past.


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You might also like these posts:

How to Find Your Purpose

When You Want to Be Better or Someone Else

Affirmations for People Who Hate Affirmations


[1] The phrase New Age charlatanry is a fancy phrase for New Age bull-@#$%, which is a phrase I hear people use a lot. As in, “That’s a bunch of New Age bull-#$%^.” The other day a friend and I were talking about this phrase, and I suggested that when people label and dismiss an idea as New Age, it is often because the idea pertains to nurturing our emotions, our sense of worthiness, or our spirituality. Such issues are directly related to our ability to flourish and are in no way any kind of New Age charlatanry or bull-@$%^.

Sometimes Emotions and Spirituality Feel Frightening

But talking or thinking about them can make us feel vulnerable and so sometimes people dismiss such ideas as quackery in order to avoid feeling vulnerable. If you think you might be one of those people, you’re still groovy. But please consider reading the articles found at the hyperlinks in the above paragraph. Your emotions and spirituality are important, and the more you nurture them, the better able you are to show up in a powerful way for yourself and the important people in your life.

On the other hand, there are some ideas floating around that suggest that people’s lot in life is entirely up to them and their thoughts. Such ideas suggest that if anything bad happens to people, it is because they have attracted that bad thing with their negative energy (or some such thing). This type of idea is indeed New Age charlatanry, and I have written more about it here.

[2]And of course, students’ own words they use to describe a subject to themselves strongly influences how they view the subject matter as well.

[3] It’s similar to how we deal with disease. If you want to be healthy physically, you need to be aware of diseases and viruses and even expose yourself to them sometimes (e.g. through vaccines or inoculations). But most of the time, you want to focus on strengthening and nurturing your body by flooding it with nutrients, rest, and movement.

[4] Proverbs 25:11, NIV

[5] Love is showing kindness, compassion, and respect to our self and others to help us flourish together.

7 thoughts on “Does Having a Word for the Year Help?”

  1. So choosing this word thing is something new to me. I don’t remember encountering FB posts with this word of the year choice ever before. But I can go along with it. I think I have both a word and phrase that complement each other. My word: vulnerable. And my phrase comes from some Ralph Waldo Emerson I encountered recently: “Star by star, world by world, system by system shall be crushed–but I shall live.” Emerson lived from 1803-1882. He made this statement, according to my source, when he was only 20 years old.

    1. Aaron, this is so cool! I love it that you are choosing “vulnerable” for your word. Whoa, Nellie, have I struggled with vulnerability in the past. Learning to embrace it, and show myself compassion through the process, has been life-changing for me. And that Emerson quote is wonderful. Cheers to you as you embrace vulnerablity in 2021.

  2. Thanks Shelly. I can’t wait to read your next post. BTW, where is it that you teach? I earned my MA in English at Ohio State University. I loved it there, and I loved teaching freshman composition classes. But when it came time for doctorate work, which I could have easily done, I decided to be closer to my parents who live in northeast PA, and I took a high school position teaching American Literature. I’m glad I didn’t study further at the time because I would have probably studied early 20th century British literature, which I find a little nauseating and tedious now. I’m much interested in the American Romantic period, hence thee name of my blog , The White Whale.

    1. That’s really cool you earned earn in your MA in English and that you taught freshman comp. I actaully originally applied to go to grad school in English, and I got rejected. I was crushed at the time, but in retrospect I am so glad I got rejcted because it lead me to philosophy. I teach at a college in KY. I am looking forward to reading your new post, too! And awesome job teaching high school English and caring for your parents. Those are such important things.

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