Around the world and throughout the millennia, those who have thought carefully about the workings of desire have recognized this–that the easiest way for us to gain happiness is to learn how to want the things we already have.
William B. Irvine
They say Christmas is the “most wonderful time of the year”, but let’s be honest: it’s often a major source of stress and anxiety.
There’s the usual reasons, of course. Money, family we don’t want to see, ridiculous gift exchanges. Long lines. But I think there’s something else as well.
Christmas reveals how much we don’t have.
The “Home Alone” Christmas
We all have an idea of what it’s supposed to be, which I call the “Home Alone Christmas”–just without the missing kid. It’s a picturesque holiday free of any real problems. Everyone arrives dressed as if they walked out of a J Crew catalog, they gather in a beautiful home, share a meal complete with all the traditional foods, and gifts are opened from beneath an idyllic, finely-decorated tree. Everyone has enough time away from work to relax, travel, and do what they do. It’s how Christmas would’ve been for the Home Alone family if Kevin had woken up with everyone else. We see it in movies and television shows, and companies market the hell out of it.
But that’s not what Christmas looks like in the real world. At least not for most of us.
Sometimes we don’t have the time. We often work the day before and the day after–taking a break only to cram twenty-four hours full of social obligations. If we want additional time, then we have to sacrifice our already-limited vacation days. And if you work in the service industry, then just forget about getting any time off. Holidays aren’t for you.
Sometimes we don’t have the ideal family. Instead of everyone arriving in good spirits, ready to share updates about their careers and bask in the joy of being together with loved ones, our families often have drama and tension. Some of them aren’t having good years. There’s job losses, health issues, marital problems. And if we’re being honest with ourselves, we don’t even like some of them.
Sometimes we don’t have the money. The McAllister family was from the country’s second-wealthiest town, planned to spend Christmas in France, and left their son alone in a house that has higher property taxes than the average worker earns in a year. The reality for other folks is quite different. Forty-seven percent of non-elderly Americans say they don’t have the resources to meet an unexpected expense of $400, and yet the average American plans to spend $882 on gifts this year. Thirty-one percent are understandably concerned about getting into debt over the holidays.
And when we purchase our gifts, we’re confronted with what we can’t afford. For example, I was recently at an upscale shopping area in North Carolina since I had time to burn before a flight. I noticed a Lululemon store and decided to stop by. It was only the second time I’ve been in one, but I quickly remembered why I don’t shop there. Many of the pants were over $100, and some of the shirts were above $80. I’d been looking for a pair of comfortable athletic pants to wear in airports, but I wasn’t about to pay that much. That’s bullshit, right? And all for clothing that people are going to get sweaty.
As I looked around, however, I noticed certain folks were eagerly snatching up one item after another–talking about how they needed a few shirts or wanted to purchase gifts for their family members. My immediate reaction was to feel small–almost like I’d stepped into a world where I didn’t belong. It was like the feeling I get when I walk into REI and think, “man, if only I could afford more of this stuff“. And I wondered: did I really believe that the store was bullshit, or was I just upset that I couldn’t shop there? And it’s not that I can’t purchase any of it–I have the money–but rather that I’d be buying one, maybe two items, whereas those folks acted as if it was no big deal to buy multiple pants, shirts, socks, and gym bags.
But that’s what Christmas does: it reminds us of what we don’t have. Every time. So is this just an intrinsic feature of the holiday, or is there a way we can do this better?
Learn to want what you have
I think we can do it better, and I believe it starts with wanting what you already have.
Professor Irvine claims it’s the easiest way to happiness, but I think it’s one of the most genuine. We have a terrible habit in our culture of believing that happiness is connected to the attainment of future goals and better stuff. The dream job, the new house, the new car, the vacation you can brag about on Facebook, the clothes from the upscale boutique. Christmas brings us face-to-face with whether or not we’ve been successful in that conventional sense. For many, that’s a cause of negative emotions.
Learning to want what you have, however, is like a shield from that sort of thinking. You realize that you don’t need the picturesque, idyllic holiday. If you’ve got it, that’s fine–and you should enjoy it. But if that’s not your reality, then that’s fine as well since you already have what you want.
But this isn’t another one of those bullshit diatribes about “positive thinking”. It’s not the glossy-eyed excitement about gratitude that people post to Facebook as if they’re trying to hypnotize themselves into being happy.
This is about realizing that 1) there’s a problem with the conventional thinking and 2) there’s a way to break the cycle of always wanting more no matter how much we get.
It’s about remembering how badly I wanted that one shirt–the one I’ve begun leaving on the floor instead of carefully placing on a hanger. The same shirt I thought about after leaving the mall and returned to purchase a week later, having decided that I just couldn’t live without it. The exact same shirt I wore to an event with my girlfriend’s family because I thought, “damn, I look really good in this”.
I wanted that shirt. I’d do well to reflect on that feeling.
It’s about remembering the week between the first and second date with my girlfriend, the one in which my anticipation and excitement were so intense that I struggled to sleep. I wanted so badly to tell her how I felt that I nearly drove over and professed a grand statement of love and future plans. I talked myself out of that, of course, but it’s how I felt. And when I finally kissed her–I remember wondering if anything had ever made me feel that good.
I wanted her. I’d do well to reflect on that feeling.
And it’s about realizing that one day I’m not going to have any of this: my friends, my family, my girlfriend, my limited financial resources, or even my beloved road bicycle. They might go first, or perhaps I will–either way, I know where the future is heading. One day I’ll want what I have right now because it’s gone, or I won’t have it because “I” won’t exist. So why in the world would I take it all for granted and waste time wishing I had something that’s more idyllic in the conventional sense? That’s stupid, right?
Above all, I think it’s helpful to realize that despite the marketing and rhetoric–despite the seemingly “perfect” lives on Facebook and Instagram–Christmas was never supposed to be any way. There’s no standard we’re supposed to pursue. It’s all in our heads and those of the folks around us.
Why spend time wishing it’s any different than it is?