If old holiday traditions don’t bring you joy, there’s an even older one you can try that works every day.
Whatever sweetness and light I experienced from the Christmas morning gift exchanges of my youth always seemed to curdle into envy by evening.
We visited my mother’s cousins for Christmas dinner, and they did gift giving in a big way. My brother and I used to joke about how visiting their house was our chance to see what it was like to get the stuff we really wanted.
And our cousins were always happy to let us enjoy their bounty because by late afternoon their initial excitement had usually worn off, too. Not even the most expensive toys and gadgets come packaged with long-lasting excitement built-in.
We were happy for our cousin’s good fortune while we had access to their stuff, and if we had left it at that, our holiday would have been win-win. But somehow, when we returned home, it made our own haul seem, well, meager.
I didn’t understand that tying my enjoyment of the season to giving and receiving gifts was an unavoidable set-up for disappointment.
To be fair with my younger self, I didn’t have many cultural touchstones to teach me this. Commerce played a leading role even in holiday movies that emphasized the spiritual side of the holidays. Ebenezer Scrooge expressed his redemption through redistributing his accumulated wealth. George Bailey in It’s a Wonderful Life was all about human connection, but the happy ending relied on one of his friends being a millionaire.
I didn’t realize that thanks to the hedonic treadmill, our tendency to quickly take good things for granted, no material goods whether given or received can bring about lasting joy.
Even if we get all that we want, it’s never all that we imagine. It always leaves us wanting more.
For the past several Christmases we’ve dispensed with gift giving and obligatory rituals. We took hikes in Forest Park.
The trail we use is a popular destination for families who choose a little respite in nature over an early afternoon meal or a crowded blockbuster movie matinee.
It’s possible that these families went to church before this. It’s possible that they participated in the whole gift exchange ritual. I don’t know. It doesn’t matter. Whatever this self-selecting group of people chose to do earlier, there was a prevailing atmosphere of high spirits by the time they got here.
It makes us happy to see so many happy faces.
We don’t worry about the relative value of the vehicles in the parking lot or how much people spent on their clothes or hiking boots.
The trail is free and open to the public. Whatever joy our fellow hikers receive from their surroundings is also available to us. If they are smiling and laughing together, enjoying each others’ company, their smiles and laughter do not subtract in any way from our own joy. It enhances it.
When struggling with depression, it’s easy to feel disconnected from other people’s happiness. It’s tempting to avoid situations where we find ourselves surrounded by happy people because their mood seems totally out of sync with our own.
Given the ubiquitous social pressure to have a Happy Holiday or a Merry Christmas, the fact that we’re just not feeling it, can be very isolating.
The holidays left me feeling like the odd man out during my youth. It wasn’t until I stopped doing all the things that didn’t make me happy and opted to take a walk in the woods that I realized I wasn’t alone in this.
Since none of us can be joyful all the time, an effective strategy for maximizing our happiness is to practice sharing it.
It’s an acquired skill to tune in to other people’s happiness, especially if they get it by doing things we don’t enjoy.
When it comes to exercise, I prefer taking a walk to having someone throw a ball, going to chase it, and repeatedly fetching it for them. I’ve no idea why it makes dogs so deliriously happy. But, if I focus on the dog’s happiness instead of the activity that produces it, I can absorb some second-hand happiness simply by observing them.
The same goes for observing people.
I’m not a huge fan of football, which to me is the human version of fetching a ball. But, if I walk by a tavern and see a group of people huddled around a TV, completely caught up in the game, it can bring a smile to my face.
If I had practiced this skill when I was young, I might have enjoyed Christmas morning much more than I did. I might have appreciated my cousins’ good fortune without having it diminish my own.
Ten Minute Exercise
- Bring to mind a family member, friend or colleague who recently experienced an event in their personal or professional life that brought them joy.
- Try to imagine how that event made them feel. Do your best to feel that joy yourself, and wish them many more moments of joy in the future.
- Bring to mind a stranger you’ve observed experiencing a moment of joy, whether or not you’re aware of the cause.
- Try to imagine the experience of joy that this stranger feels and wish that they experience many more moments of joy in the future.
- Bring to mind someone from your life with whom you have differences.
- Genuinely wish this person joy from any action that does not harm others.
- Next, extend that genuine wish that everyone experience joy now and in the future, including yourself.
This exercise rarely produces any noticeable results right away, but, if we repeat it often enough, it can help give us a greater sense of perspective and resilience. It works best when we need it most.