Typical holiday-season news scene from inside a giant mall filled with people, stuff, and noise:
Reporter, shoving microphone into shopper’s face: “How much did you spend on presents last year?”
Shopper: “A lot! Too much!”
Reporter: “And this year? You’ve got to top last year, right?”
Shopper: “Right! Of course!”
They both chuckle.
The Western hemisphere gets dark and cold in December, so we light candles, warm ourselves next to the fireplace if we’re lucky enough to have one, and drink hot chocolate. We gather with friends and family to banish the dark places. Or … WE GO TO THE MALL!
December is a festive month, and you’re supposed to have a good time. If you don’t, or if you feel that you’re not happy enough, or if you’re in fact lonely and unhappy, then there must be something wrong with you. You compare your real feelings with what you’ve been told you’re supposed to feel, and you just don’t come up to the bar—in fact, you fail the test. The psychological term for this is “cognitive dissonance,” which means you’re supposed to feel a certain way but you don’t; you feel something else entirely. You’re afraid that you’re just a loser, so you look for a way out.
Denial, for example. It works by denying your feelings, saying, “I don’t feel bad. I feel great! Look at this smile I’ve pasted on my face. Let’s run around and have fun wherever we can, whatever it might be. Let’s go to the store and buy stuff. Listen to the loud, clinky, ceaseless, happy music! It’s saying, “Be happy and BUY!” What kind of stuff do I want? What kind of stuff do you want? Let’s go to the mall and fill ourselves up.
The mall is packed; do you really want to go there? You can watch the action on television for laughs and excitement. People are climbing over one another, even stepping on one another, just to get into the store (amateur wrestling). Look at that guy trying on the ugly reindeer sweater with the sparkles on it (comedy show). Watch that lady get tasered and robbed (cops and robbers). People buy everything! Especially if it’s on sale! It’s what you’re supposed to do (infomercial). Hint: Skip the crowds, buy ahead of time, buy online, or make your presents. Buy less.
Stuff. I’m tempted to say “stuff it”—most of it, anyway. There are things that are pleasing, and if they are worthwhile you should consider buying them, but some people stock up on stuff for its own sake, because buying makes you feel happy and powerful. The endorphins, the feel-good hormones in the brain, are briefly stimulated when you’re loading up on stuff, but then the endorphins fade and you feel bad again. Stuff doesn’t make you happy for long; it just makes you look for more stuff when the novelty of the first stuff wears off. It’s an addiction—something you need to have right away, over and over, and you’re never satisfied. Addictions of all kinds separate us from ourselves, our emotions and our real needs.
There’s no “happiness aisle” at the mall, and happiness is not sold at a discount. People who win the lottery, for example, often have a brief period of exaltation, buy a lot of stuff, and then go back to their regular lives, perhaps feeling more depressed than when they started. Happiness is an emotion—not a thing, not stuff. Happiness is a form of energy that lies within you and between people, connecting them. Feeling your connections with others, even those you don’t know, may help you feel more content.
If the emphasis on jollity is an expectation you can’t fill, maybe there’s something wrong with the expectation, not with you. You think you’re supposed to feel a certain way, but you don’t. Is that your failure? Who says your feelings are wrong, that you’re supposed to feel one way or another? Recognize your emotions and stay with them for a bit, even if they’re unpleasant, maybe especially if they’re unpleasant. You don’t have to act on them, but you can feel them and work with them and your response to them. Remember, you’re not alone. Everyone has these feelings.
Ten ways to make a better December:
- Stay warm.
- Get enough sleep.
- Eat nourishing food.
- Stay active.
- Make sure you’re getting enough sunshine. Light deprivation can contribute to depression.
- Meditate. Don’t know how? Try sitting quietly for five minutes. Close your eyes. Watch your breath and see what happens. Do this every day for a week and see if it’s for you.
- Try yoga. It releases endorphins, enhances self-regard, and links you with others.
- Honor your true feelings.
- Give yourself the gifts of time, relaxation, and companionship when you want it.
- Share those gifts with others.
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