Looking for Happiness in the Holidays

Posted by on Dec 2, 2012 in Blog | Comments Off on Looking for Happiness in the Holidays

Looking for Happiness in the Holidays

I caught myself the other day.  I was browsing some websites for Christmas gifts and found my mind wandering to a few items on the screen.  I swear the word “need” came clearly to mind.  The embarrassing part was that it was just another pair of leggings (yes, those who know the city yoga teacher know her draw to a cute pair of leggings).  I have not just worn out my one pair, thus necessitating this purchase; I just felt this uncontrollable urge to acquire another pair… to add to the pile that’s growing on the floor of my closet.  But I caught myself.  That’s what yoga does… what mindfulness does.  It starts to put these little gaps of awareness between your habits, those moments when you feel pulled along by emotional currents, and your reactions to them.  What am I doing?  Why am I looking for more leggings?

A few years ago I took a Positive Psychology course that was basically a fleshed-out and article-laden version of the newer documentary Happy.  There was one part of the course I found especially interesting.  It was about a phenomenon called the Hedonic Treadmill, and it referred to the tendency for people to maintain a relatively stable happiness set-point despite major and minor gains and losses throughout their lives.  In other words, people tend to live along a happiness spectrum.  There are really happy people, there are people who spend most of their lives in depression.  What they have in common is that if they experienced a major loss like the death of someone close to them, or a major gain like winning the lottery, there would be a temporary shift in their affect, but eventually they would return to their happiness set-point.  Of course, this theory assumes that the people we are talking about have their basic needs met, and are not trying to survive from day-to-day (in this case, money would increase the happiness set-point and eliminate feelings of fear and anxiety… but only to the point where their needs are met.  Monetary gains above this tend not to have any real effect on happiness.)

This got me thinking about the holidays, a time of sometimes uncontrolled consumption of commercial goods.  We ask for things, we feel the need to give more things.  Things, things, things.  Leggings… stuff.  It turns out that when people get new stuff, they feel that temporary lift and believe that it has made them happier.  But then they return, quickly, to their happiness set-point and begin to search for a new thing to give them that lift once again.  And again and again.  We have essentially stepped onto a hamster wheel of consumption where there is no end.  Happiness sits like a carrot on a stick and we buy each step towards it, not learning, never learning, that the carrot will always move one step away.  Unless we stop looking for happiness in things, in extrinsic goals, and begin to invest in relationships and the quality of our spirits, or in intrinsic goals.

Extrinsic goals refer to goals that have simply external motivators such as wanting attention, being praised, receiving accolades, being paid, or having more stuff.  Goals driven by a sense of competition are also extrinsic, as the outcome of happiness is only determined by beating someone else rather than by enjoying the activity in itself.  These goals, when they are met, do not change the happiness set point.  They do increase temporary feelings of happiness, but the person will soon return to their baseline measures and begin looking to the next thing, the next competition, the next big promotion, etc.

Intrinsic goals have internal motivations such as wanting to learn more about a subject because you find it interesting, investing in the task at hand because you enjoy it not because you are seeking an outcome, building relationships, helping others.  In other words, you choose to engage in activities because they bring about enjoyment and self-betterment, regardless of a reward or punishment system.  An example would be running a marathon, not because you want people to know you did or because you want to win or because you want a fit body that will win you attention, but because you get lost in the flow of running and it makes you feel good.  These goals are able to affect a person’s happiness set-point.  They can create a shift and increase feelings of worthiness, involvement, interest and contentedness.

People always seem amazed when they travel from a developed country to a less developed one that the people seem happy, even if they have next to nothing in terms of material goods.  We look for happiness in Macy’s, in the trophy, in the promotion and it gets us nowhere.  In parts of the world where people need to pull together and help one another in order to make it, the result is tighter community, feelings of being needed, of being able to rely on others, families where each member has a role, an important contribution.  These factors increase feelings of self-worth and belonging in real ways, which are big contributors to happiness.

We’re all looking to be happy and most of us are looking in the wrong place and the thing is, we know it.  So why don’t we make the necessary changes?  It’s easier to shut off the knowledge that nothing we’re doing is working and just look up to the billboards and assume they know best.  At every angle, our real understanding of what we need more of is undermined by messages that tell us we need more of the very stuff we don’t need at all.  It’s easy to be lulled by the sway.  I’m not above it, so I’m not writing this from my pulpit.  I’m with everyone else in the midst of the holiday frenzy, being pulled by some strange force to ask for more pretty things.  But I’m also starting to feel more conflicted, and I think that’s a good thing.  It feels more awake, somehow.

I like that the holidays are a time when we show that we appreciate one another.  Giving gifts is an age-old way to do this and reciprocity helps to strengthen relationships.  But instead of giving material gifts that are above and beyond what we need, maybe we can look to using this as an opportunity instead to give experiences such as passes to museums, tuition for self-interest classes such as pottery or auto maintenance, music lessons, gift certificates to yoga, a sky-diving lesson, a writing workshop.  Instead of building up mountains of things, look to ways to build a better self.  Rediscover your curiosity about life and invest in some real happiness.


All content by Lisa Veronese. Please do not publish or copy my material without my consent.