I don’t know about you, but the end-of-year holiday season is so often laden with potholes—both emotional and commercial. And never more so than in 2022, the year of The Slog, a time when buying more stuff seems a slap in the face to anyone concerned for the future of the Earth, and for me, the almost-anniversary of losing a much-beloved parent. So let’s reflect on some ideas for not just surviving this time, but actually finding some redemptive meaning, and maybe even some joy in it.
1. Get “Epi-curious.” I credit this first idea to my friend and colleague, Miles Downie, who brought it to my attention as we were discussing (as you do :)) the keys to happiness. Miles drew my attention to the Greek philosopher Epicurus, who was not only famous both for coining the term “hedonism” but more importantly, in these holiday times, for making the connection between simplicity and happiness.
Epicurus was well ahead of his time in making this link. He argued that external conditions such as fine food, luxurious homes, significant wealth, or even good looks are but marginally effective in producing lasting happiness. Epicurus argued for the opposite, that it was one’s independence from these things that was the key. When we pin our hopes on the happiness of stuff, we are upset when we lose stuff, we anxiously want stuff, and can end up on what is now called the “hedonic treadmill,” that soulless pursuit of more and more stuff because what used to make us happy has lost its impact. This is precisely how the commercialization of this season can make things so complicated.
So, what, if the great Epicurus were still with us, would he have us do?
Get simple. Epicurus would tell us to sleep in a simple bed, eat plain food, and keep possessions to a minimum. When we can intentionally live our lives in that way, and we do happen upon a better meal, experience more comfort, or have some other pleasant experience, we can really appreciate it for what it is…without clinging to it, or lusting for more. Where in your life right now can you pare things back, get a little simpler?
Be with our good people. Epicurus also expounded on the benefit of hanging with “like-minded people” (as distinguished from those who drain you or take from you). I also hear this as a version of “get out there into the world and do good for others.” But if it’s just mindfully enjoying time with our family and true friends, go do that. Appreciating, of course, the reality that while we get to choose our friends, family is there to stay. Just know that if it's family who drains you, your work is to offset that with time, if you can get it, with others who fill you up.
Interestingly, modern research on happiness according to positive psychology’s Ed Deiner (aka Dr. Happiness) completely supports both of these points. Diener has found that external conditions do little to change one’s level of happiness. After a certain threshold, there seems to be no correlation between income and happiness. Rather, for example, it was found that teenagers from blue-collar families were happier than teenagers from rich families.
Ditto for the company we keep. Here’s what Deiner had to say about our social connections:
“The most salient characteristics shared by the 10% of students with the highest levels of happiness and the fewest signs of depression were their strong ties to friends and family and commitment to spending time with them.” (‘Very Happy People,” Psychological Science 2002).
2. Mine Your Memories for Joy. The second idea I was gifted came from meditation teacher Jeff Warren. He speaks of two different kinds of memories: observational memories and field memories. While observational memories are the stock-standard ones where you “watch” them like a movie, field memories are those memories that are so strong that you not only remember them but it feels like you're actually there again. Like a virtual-reality experience - of your own past.
This can be especially useful now, when so often, we may be otherwise channeling a sense of loss, or of being far from those we love, or whatever else it is that ails us this time of year.
Warren suggests that we dip into those positive field memories we each have as a way to tap into joy on demand. Joy in this context is not necessarily euphoric joy, but rather that simple sense of contentment and “happiness to be alive” kind of joy.
He asks us to think back to the last year to whatever memories evoke that sense of deep contentment. That wonderful sense of aliveness. These memories don’t have to be peak experiences - quite the contrary. We want to get back into those” small h” happy moments, which can be quite small but worth revisiting.
And in revisiting, we are not seeking to implant the event into our present, but simply to experience that joy. To remember and even bask in it a bit.
When Jeff asked that question of me, I scanned back and landed smack dab in a vivid memory of being back in the USA last December, visiting with my father in his final months of life. The particular memory was one of being at his bedside belting out Christmas carols alongside my more tuneful siblings. My father, who was blind and almost deaf at the time, was particularly tone-deaf but made up for it in volume and spirit. It was a magical time of family connection.
Being back in that memory, I was infused with a profound sense of joy, a poignant sense of loss and, as well, provided with a redemptive reminder of the spirit of the season. Yep, I still miss him, but he'd want me to enjoy the season as much as he did.
I hope you find your own joyful field memories, simple pleasures, and the company of good friends.
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