A Christmas Attitude

I have had two clients today explain to me why they do not particularly care for Christmas. They each had their own reason for having some ambivalence about Christmas. I happen to really enjoy Christmas. They both reported having pleasant Christmases growing up, as did I. I think the difference is that I have a different attitude about Christmas. For me Christmas is honestly about the fun of giving and creating memories.

My first client explained that Christmas reminds her of all of the sadness in the world, and admitted to feeling some guilt for having the resources to celebrate Christmas while others do not. I acknowledged that sadness and poverty are real and regrettable. I also shared my confusion as to how whether I celebrated Christmas or not was going to actually affect the sadness of others. I honestly do not think that we can only celebrate in the absence of suffering—if that were the case then we really could never celebrate anything. I would rather affect the overall balance of joy and sadness in the world by bringing joy to my friends and family than by limiting the overall joy by not celebrating Christmas.

I elaborated that in my Christmas celebration I go out of my way to demonstrate to my friends that I am thinking of them and that they matter to me. We have holidays to celebrate mothers, fathers, and even secretaries/administrative assistants and bosses; to me Christmas operates as “Loved Ones Day,” but with more twinkly lights and sweets. In the same sense that I believe that demonstrating appreciation for the mothers and secretaries in our lives throughout the year is a good idea, demonstrating appreciation for friends and family throughout the year is also important. However, I do not think that this attitude precludes us going a step further one day a year, which we happen to call “Christmas.”

The second client explained to me that Christmas is not the same since her father died. I agreed with her that that was an undeniable truth—Christmas could never be the same. However, I suggested, Christmas did not need to be the same in order for it to be a celebration. No two Christmases are the same anyway. Yes, her life was dramatically changed, but she has gone on with living her life fully during the rest of the year and I did not see the argument for why she chose this particular day out of the year to note the way in which her life is now different. I do not say that to diminish her sense of loss—I genuinely respect that, but to highlight that we have a choice over what parts of our lives grief is going to affect. To anyone who feels hesitant to embrace Christmas because of a loss I would encourage looking at what else about Christmas has been rewarding and to focus and foster that aspect of one’s holiday celebration.

Growing up, Christmas was truly magical to me. My parents really made Christmas special. The first Christmas I spent without my family I made deliberate efforts to find new magic in my celebration—I knew what feelings and experiences I wanted to capture and arranged for it. Each year I now think of what memories and feelings I want to create and go about that. Finding gifts for my friends becomes not a task or chore, but rather and adventure. Each year I get to go on a series of treasure hunts. The best thing is that I get to decide what the treasure is. Some of those hunts go on online as I scour the internet for just the right gift or even in my head as I imagine what my loved ones might enjoy receiving.

Additionally, each year my boyfriend and I make about a thousand cookies and package them up for gifts. This is an exhausting and time consuming process and each year we laugh at ourselves for doing. It is also one of the most fun things we do for Christmas each year, because we do it together and we get to experience the connection that occurs in giving/receiving of a handcrafted gift. This is another part of the Christmas adventure for us.

The outlook that each of us takes toward Christmas is what determines our experience of Christmas. We all know about the “Christmas Spirit,” but if you don’t feel it naturally you can foster it in yourself by changing the way you think about Christmas—by changing your Christmas attitude.

Lessons from the Plant Life in Washington, DC

On the 1800 block of Corcoran St in Washington, DC there are rows of Ginkgo trees. In the fall the leaves turn a bright yellow, and in the late afternoon the angle of the sun is such that it shines on the leaves and turns them into a sea of glowing fans fluttering in the breeze. It is nature at its best. As the summer waned each year that I lived in DC I eagerly awaited the change of those leaves. I have not lived in Washington, DC for over 10 years and the sight of those leaves has stayed with me.

However, the real moment in which my path to savoring was awakened was one time when my then boyfriend and I were walking to meet friends at an appointed time for dinner. Punctuality has been very important to me. I knew the travel time to DuPont Circle and I had arranged for us to leave with just enough time to get to there. As we walked, my boyfriend stopped to smell the roses in someone’s yard. I was frustrated; we were going to be late because he was stopping to smell flowers. Flowers which, by the way, he had just smelled the day before. The smell had not changed since then, and now he was wasting our time! So there I was getting upset that my boyfriend was literally stopping to smell the flowers. That is when I realized that I had been going about living wrongly.

Savoring is the act of fully taking in the stimuli around us. It involves stepping out of the immediate action and imbibing in the environment. Savoring has been shown to increase the positive feelings, gratitude, hopefulness, and self-confidence one experiences. It is also associated with less depression, anxiety, shame, and guilt. It is also simply fun.

Each of us savors in our own way. We can use our 5 basic senses or respond to our kinesthetic sense—the stimuli of our own body’s position and movement. We can also savor directly and indirectly. We can take in the experience of another by seeing or hearing about it and becoming absorbed in that. We can bask in our own or another’s accomplishments. One can also savor the past through reminiscing and in the future through optimism. People who engage in joyful anticipation tend to experience more intense emotions and those that reminisce tend to handle stress better.

One the things that I savor most is watching modern dance. I savor watching how the dancers move their bodies and the emotions and ideas they communicate. I marvel in their ability to communicate deep experiences purely physically; I find it enthralling. But my primary pathway to savoring is touch. I relish the sensation of textures against my skin. I once went to Glick’s (a textiles warehouse) and spent an hour just feeling the fabrics—I left there feeling renwed. It was as if all of my worries just filtered out as the stimuli aroused my finger tips. My current boyfriend savors flavors. He loves trying to figure out the elements of the flavor and how the different seasonings interact with each other. Savoring can be simple, but it can also be thrilling.

Have you ever had a simple sensory experience that absorbed you? Which sensory system or systems were involved? Those are probably your primary savoring paths. Take some time to deliberately delight in stimuli related to those senses. For example, if sound is your primary sensory pathway, then listen to beautiful music or the sounds or children or nature or you can savor indirectly by listening to joyous interactions of others. You also do not have to limit yourself to your primary sensory systems. All of us are capable to savoring through all 6 sensory systems. Dancing or being athletic can be savoring moments that operate on the kinesthetic sense. Perhaps sitting down with pictures from a special time in your life can rekindle joyous moments or planning your next vacation can awaken your bliss within. Whatever works for you, try stopping for a few moments each week and savor your experiences.

Mindfulness

Ever watch TV for hours when there was nothing on? You weren’t looking at a blank screen, but at the end of the period you felt as if you had, or worse? This is the experience of mindlessness, which is the opposite of mindfulness.

Mindless activities do not have goals (or poorly defined ones), are not challenging, and typically leaves one bored or empty—particularly if we do them for too long. The process of decompressing after a long or difficult day is different, though similar. Both acts involve the process of shutting down the mind. However, decompressing involves turning the mind back on, whereas mindlessness does not.

Mindfulness is different from mindlessness in that mindfulness is engaging. It is about awareness and being in the moment. Mindfulness involves becoming aware of the novelties of the moment and attending to the variety of things going on around you. It is being sensitive to the context and perspective. It is not about focusing on a single stimuli or about letting stimuli simply flow into your mind, but to be an active participant in your own experience. Mindfulness requires that one (a) let go of the need to control and to tolerate uncertainty, (b) resist the tendency to engage in automatic behaviors, and (c) to be less evaluative and analytical.

There is a Simpsons’ episode in which Bart has on Ralph’s Chinese finger cuffs and Ralph says “the more you fight the tighter it gets.” I think the same can be said for our desire to control our lives. The more we fight the uncertainty, the tighter the grip our circumstances have on us. But just like Chinese finger cuffs, if we relax we can get free of life’s uncertainty. This is not the same thing as being carefree, but it is allowing the inevitable chaos of our lives to occur and to roll with it. This is something that for many people, especially people that have a strong future orientation, will find difficult.

Passive habits are easy to establish and hard to break. Overall, we like routines. We like to do things the way we have done things—the ways that we have discovered (or at least believe) are easiest. I am not arguing against efficiency or that we continually re-invent the wheel. However, some routines we engage in specifically because they are routine and not because they necessarily serve us, other than to make it so that we don’t have to think. These routines for the sake of routine prevent us from experiencing novelty—novelty that would normally have the potential to inspire and awaken us.

Being aware and awake is explicitly not being evaluative and analytical. It is important to observe without judgment. Instead of asking the question “how do I feel?” ask the question “what do I feel?” Taking in one’s experience without trying to analyze the experience as to whether it is good or bad—most experiences are not inherently good or bad until we apply a judgment to them. This mindset also lessens our need to make ourselves feel good in the moment, which often operates as a distraction from a more genuine happiness.

Research has shown that people you regularly engage in mindfulness experience more joy and fulfillment. Mindfulness has been associated with better resistance to stress and finding more meaning in one’s life, less depression and anxiety, and more rewarding, lower conflict social relationships. Mindful bodybuilding, in which one attends to the sensation of the muscles during lifting, has been shown to produce greater results. There is also evidence that mindfulness increases one’s social or emotional intelligence, which in turn can benefit work relationships.
Being mindful does not occur quickly; it takes practice. There are simple things you can do to increase your mindfulness. You can start by becoming aware of your own body; notice the sensation of your body position or the feel of the seat against your butt and your clothes on your body. Deliberately do a routine in a different way and notice what is different about your experience of that activity. Go for a walk and notice the things that you pass—as a cyclist I have the opportunity to notice things that people do not when they drive; you can notice even more when you walk. Meditation is a great way to achieve this state. You can start by taking 5 minutes once a day to sit still and just feel your breathing. Eventually you would ideally engage in mindful meditation, in which you notice and non-judgmentally dismiss thoughts, twice a day for 20 minutes. Try simple ways that introduce more novel stimuli and make you more aware of your experiences, in non-judgmental ways, and you will be on your way to improved mental health and more enduring happiness.