How To Choose Your Own “Word Of The Year”
What Is My Story?
Story. An invisible-yet-felt weight, the word landed on my chest while I was lying on a yoga mat, cooling down from a hot 90 class.
It was December 2014. I was living in a new city, working multiple hourly jobs. Mostly, I was feeling uncertain about myself and where I was going in life. So when a friend suggested I choose a word for the new year—“It may help you find some clarity and purpose”—I was skeptical but eager. How does one go about choosing a word? I spent the next few weeks pondering the idea, using spare moments to contemplate possible themes for the forthcoming year. Then, one afternoon in yoga class, it hit me.
I wrote the word in Sharpie at the top of my journal later that day. And over the next 12 months, I spent many hours and entries pondering my story, both its origin and my role as author in my life. “I realize more and more how much control I have over my choices and my reactions,” I wrote in one entry. “Yesterday, I did something I was not planning on doing and applied for grad school…I am curious to see where this path leads.”
It was the beginning of a dream that, years later, would lead me back to school, where I would cultivate my love for writing, specifically memoir (or origin stories). But more than that, the word gave me something to look for and cling to throughout my seemingly mundane days. There was depth and purpose, I discovered, and even the most insignificant moments were pages in my larger story.
Words can change how we process life, according to researchers Andrew Newberg, M.D. and Mark Robert Waldman. More specifically, positive words can alter our expression of genes, motivate us, and help us to build resilience.
“By holding a positive and optimistic [word] in your mind, you stimulate frontal lobe activity,” the authors write in their book (aptly titled), “Words Can Change Your Brain.” “This area includes specific language centers that connect directly to the motor cortex responsible for moving you into action.”
Choosing a word and holding it in my mind throughout the year shifted my thinking. Even when 2015 ended and I began to contemplate a new word, I realized story was now a permanent part of my life, a theme I would watch for as I ventured to graduate school, but also for many years after. It continues to shape the way I process the world today.
Now, with another new year, I find myself turning to this favorite practice once again. Below are a few of the tips and tricks I’ve found helpful when looking for my word (I’m still searching for 2022). If you’re also eager to choose a “word” for your year, I invite you to join me.
How To Find Your Word
Be Open To Your Word Finding You
In the early weeks of the new year, I shift my internal posture to stay open and observant of the world around me. I am on a quest to find my word, but I also believe this word is looking for me.
Pay careful attention—to the books you’re reading, to what others are saying, to the signs you see in shops or on public transport. Advertisements and billboards can become maps for potential clues.
Often, I have an inkling of my word already, or at least acknowledgement of the theme—and this may be true for you. What do you want to work on in the next year? How do you wish to grow? Do you have dreams that are not yet realized?
Consider these questions and note any potential patterns. Look for your word but also invite it to find you.
Use Art (Or Friends!) For Help
Some years I don’t find my word until I stop looking and start creating. One January, for example, I discovered two words: middle and feel. I had been going through a difficult season where I noticed myself avoiding my emotions and attempting to rush to the “good part” of life. But what I needed was to pause, feel the pain, and be okay sitting in “the middle,” however long it would take. That didn’t just come to me, though. I had to rely on free-writing exercises to help me understand what I needed.
Here’s how it works: I’ll grab some blank sheets of paper (ones that I will certainly throw out) and write random thoughts for 30 or so minutes. When I read back through my writing, I’ll jot down through lines I notice, sometimes even using an Etymology book or thesaurus to find synonyms for common themes.
If the first few weeks of the year pass and you still don’t have an idea, consider turning to art to guide you. It doesn’t have to be writing, either. Music, dancing, painting, collaging, and sculpting can all work, too—whatever feels most like you.
If you’d rather explore your word in community, you can also gather with friends and make it a group activity. Play music, serve some snacks, and grab a stack of old magazines (you can also do this virtually). Subconsciously rip and tear the images that speak to you. Then, collage the images and words into a notebook, doing your best not to overthink it. Once done, share your vision board with your friends. Chat through themes and patterns you all notice. They may even have word suggestions for you based on their interpretations.
Play With Various Words (It’s Okay To Have Many!)
In recent years, I’ve noticed my word will evolve depending on the season or different happenings in my life. I have also had “words” that were actually mottos or entire sentences. In 2018, for example, my word was a famous Brené Brown quote: “Strong Back. Soft Front. Wild Heart.”
Your word is not set in stone, and it can change and morph throughout the year and even refine itself into something more specific.
Perhaps your word for 2022 is mindfulness because you want to be more present and attentive to the small details of your life. But mindfulness may show up differently for you as the months and seasons tick on. You may notice embodiment is your theme during the summer as you spend more time outside. Then, as fall and winter approach, your word may change to hibernate or rest. Embrace these changes and remain curious.
Remember that words have many meanings and will look different for everyone. And also, not all words work out. In 2019, I chose the word grit because I was in my final year of grad school, and I felt like I needed a word to help me finish my program and graduate. But by summer, I had completed school, and the word felt irrelevant. I stopped journaling and forgot about my word altogether.
This practice is for you alone, and there is no correct or one way to do it.
Revisit Your Word Throughout The Year
The best part of the practice is remembering your word and seeing how it shows up for you in the next 12 months. In 2022, I’m using a large notebook and creating full-spread mood boards each month to see how my word evolves, and really, how I grow over the next year. In the past, I’ve also done monthly journal check-ins and kept my word visible via post-it notes throughout my home. By documenting the journey, I love that I get to have a time capsule to revisit for decades to come.
If journaling isn’t for you, you can also try sitting with your word in meditation, creating monthly art or music playlists, or enlisting a trusted friend for monthly dinners/coffee dates. They may even want to select a word as well so you can chat about your individual journeys together.
Have you selected your word for 2022? Feel free to share in the comments below!
Kayti Christian (she/her) is a Senior Editor at The Good Trade. She has a Master’s in Nonfiction Writing from the University of London and is the creator of Feelings Not Aside, a newsletter for enneagram 4s and other sensitive-identifying people. Outside of writing, she loves hiking, reading memoir, and the Oxford comma.