Not Everyone is Happy for the Holidays

December 22, 2013

“Happy” Holidays – The Evidence 

 Reference: Sonya Lyobomirsky and “The Myths of Happiness” 

 Not everyone is exactly happy for the holidays.  In fact, they may be a bit of a minefield for many.  What should make you happy, but doesn’t, and what shouldn’t make you happy, but does.  That’s the subtitle of the book by Sonja Lyubormirsky, America’s premier happiness researcher.   It’s a great book.  Read it.  You’ll love it. 

 Here are few of her key ideas that you might ponder this holiday season.  First of all,  she believes we are all better served when we come to life crisis and are prepared with the right attitude and mental tools to give us flexibility and resilience.  We all will have life crisis.   And research shows that those who have had some adversity in life are often happier than those who never had any.  In fact, “making sense of life’s challenges helps bolster optimism about our futures and helps us define and anchor our identities.”  

With some advance preparation, those event can turn into opportunities instead of deadends. She is fascinated with the concept of “hedonic adaptation”.    You intuitively knew that yourself.   Win a lottery and pretty quickly you aren’t any happier than before you won.  Our “tendency to get used to almost everything positive that happens to us is a formidable obstacle to our happiness.”  It’s not what is under the Christmas tree that will make you happy.  It’s the people around the tree.  And we adapt to them and take them for granted.   We assume they are there, always, waiting on us hand and feet.   That’s not a good formula for happiness.

 But you can do some things in your relationship that will make your adapted relationship happier.  Can you practice appreciating your spouse?  Write it down.  Can you close each day together by saying something you appreciated that day that the spouse did for you?  (Hint: this is NOT to bolster your spouse, it’s for your happiness.)  Another trick is to introduce variety into your relationship.  We all get used to the same old, same old….  Can you go out to a new restaurant each month on a date?  Can you surprise your spouse with an invitation to go….. bowling, or the Cactus Society Christmas party?  Surprise them.  Catch their suggestions to go to their desired event.  How about throwing pots for six weeks together.  

The research shows that married couples are much happier when variety and surprise is introduced into their lives.   Surprise is a big one too!  Bringing in new events, with a positive surprise evokes strong emotional reactions, and that builds appreciation and admiration.   Can you turn Christmas shopping from a chore into a date?  Pledge to your spouse to shop together for just 30 minutes, then have dinner and make it a fun and novel experience.  Another 30 minutes and you get a movie?  Who knows where all that lovely variety will lead.  

But those novel, surprising, varied activities will make you happy and that’s what the holidays should be about. 

 WWW.  What will work for me.  Need a Christmas present to put under the tree?  Buy Sonja’s book.  She is a genius and a beautiful writer.  I’ve enjoyed all of these ideas.  That was me inviting my spouse to the Cactus Society annual party.  She gamely went along.  We were both rescued by a horrible traffic accident that blocked the freeway and made us miss the party.  But the novelty and fun of our relationship saved the day.   So we had our own party, sitting in the car, stuck on the freeway, eating salad and being grateful not to have been in the 30 car pileup. 

 Pop Quiz 

 1.  Hedonic adaptation means you get used to the good stuff that happens to you pretty quickly?  T or F                          Answer:   True.  It's a terrible thing but very real. 

 2.   There are many things in life that are crisis moments for which being prepared ahead of time allows you to weather the storms with more resilience.   T or F                       Answer:  Very strong evidence. 

 3.   Novelty is a good thing in a marriage.   T  or F                          Answer:  You bet.  So practice it.  New activities, new friends, new....? 

 4.   Surprise, nicely done, can also be a positive effect on a marriage?  T or F                     Answer:   True.   An unexpected gift, a thoughtful errand, a kind word 

 5.   Appreciation goes a long way.  T or F                        Answer:   True.  Research shows it works, for both parties.

Column is written by John E Whitcomb, MD, Brookfield Longevity, Brookfield, Wisconsin