Where’s the Happiness Aisle?

department store during holidaysTypical 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:

  1. Stay warm.
  2. Get enough sleep.
  3. Eat nourishing food.
  4. Stay active.
  5. Make sure you’re getting enough sunshine. Light deprivation can contribute to depression.
  6. 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.
  7. Try yoga. It releases endorphins, enhances self-regard, and links you with others.
  8. Honor your true feelings.
  9. Give yourself the gifts of time, relaxation, and companionship when you want it.
  10. Share those gifts with others.

© Copyright 2013 GoodTherapy.org. All rights reserved. Permission to publish granted by Lynn Somerstein, PhD, NCPsyA, C-IAYT, therapist in New York City, New York

The preceding article was solely written by the author named above. Any views and opinions expressed are not necessarily shared by GoodTherapy.org. Questions or concerns about the preceding article can be directed to the author or posted as a comment below.

  • 11 comments
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  • Britt

    Britt

    December 17th, 2013 at 11:36 AM

    Thanks for the tips- think that I will print out a copy and hang on my mirror so I can see them every day!

  • Lynn Somerstein

    Lynn Somerstein

    December 17th, 2013 at 4:05 PM

    Thanks Britt, for using the list and letting me know!
    Take care,
    Lynn

  • Michelle

    Michelle

    December 18th, 2013 at 12:02 AM

    Haven’t all occasions become more about buying and consuming more than actually getting into the how,why and what of the festive occasion? A lot of this is aided by the consumerism I agree, but we have a role to play to. As long as we keep ourselves shielded and do not succumb to it it will not affect us. Yes, there are people around us that would succumb but hey, where is the true meaning of festivities when all you can think of is how and where you’re going to shop next!

    We ought to try and make festivities more about their spirit and less about buying and consuming. I only hope more people read and understand what’s written in this article. Thank you so much for this!

  • Dolly

    Dolly

    December 18th, 2013 at 3:32 AM

    I have been guilty in the past of buying and buying, trying to fill this void that was in my life but not relly realizing at the time that that was what I was doing. I had more clothes and shoes than I could shake a stick at but then why? I wore a uniform to work every day, I didn’t need all that stuff but it felt good when I was buyinh it because that helped me mask some of the inner sadness that I had going on in my life. I am still tempted by all the shopping this time of year and I make it a point to never go shopping alone because I know that htis urge of mine will kick in and I honestly feel powerless against it. I want to make others happy with what I give them and that is always my intention but other things always catch my eye and it makes it difficult for me.

  • Lynn Somerstein

    Lynn Somerstein

    December 18th, 2013 at 10:01 AM

    Dear Michelle,
    Thanks very much for posting your thoughts about this, I appreciate knowing that you enjoyed my article.
    Take care,
    Lynn

  • Lynn Somerstein

    Lynn Somerstein

    December 18th, 2013 at 10:09 AM

    Hi Dolly,
    You think of yourself as “guilty.” I don’t, I think you’re lonely and unhappy and need a helping, loving hand.

    You write that you have an inner sadness, and you tried to mask your feelings by shopping– as many people do, even though it never works.

    Now you are beginning to learn “skillful means,” that is, better ways to take care of yourself, and I salute your courage. Good luck.
    Take care,
    Lynn

  • Dolly

    Dolly

    December 19th, 2013 at 3:41 AM

    Thanks Lynn- I need that encouragement often! :)

  • Lynn Somerstein

    Lynn Somerstein

    December 19th, 2013 at 7:43 AM

    Dolly, you’re quite welcome.
    Take care,
    Lynn

  • LaDonna

    LaDonna

    December 26th, 2013 at 9:40 AM

    Happiness can’t be bought… it has to be found from within.

  • Owen

    Owen

    December 30th, 2013 at 4:17 AM

    I agree, LaDonna. I think that there are a lot of people who keep thinking that if they just could find this one perfect this or that or if this one thing would or would not happen then all would be happiness and roses and life is not like that. Being happy, and I mean truly happy, is something that we have to practice and become good at. There are going to be all kinds of ways to find and live that happiness but it is never going to be something that can be bought or sold. It just can’t be easy like that. It can be elusive and it can surprise you, but it is well worth it when you do find it.

  • Lynn Somerstein

    Lynn Somerstein

    December 30th, 2013 at 12:17 PM

    Well said, Owen and LaDonna– and thanks for saying it!
    Take care, wishing you a fruitful new year,
    Lynn

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