Back in the 1980’s, before my plunge into working as a full time watercolor artist ate up every ounce of my creative time and energy, I used to make our annual Christmas cards. I spent months playing around with ideas as part of my endeavor to make every card clever and quirky, especially after feedback from friends about how much they anticipated the yearly Sassaman Christmas card.
One year, the pressure was just too much. Instead of making cards, I photocopied Edvard Munch’s haunting painting “The Scream,” and typed a little message of apology, noting that I was just too busy to make cards that year. Word to the wise: “The Scream” is a poor choice for a holiday card! I tried to soften it up by putting foil stars on the eyeballs, but it was still pretty horrifying. Nonetheless, that non-card card was one of my favorites.
Over the decades, I’ve shed a lot of the Christmas season “shoulds.” No more cards, for example. No Christmas cookies. No wreath on the door. No careful arranging of the Santa Claus collection, and stocking up on candles. Fewer and less grand presents. I like to give and receive presents, and I don’t want to be a Scrooge but a) out of control consumerism is wrecking the planet, so that’s a poor way to celebrate peace and love and b) research has shown that we get a much bigger bang for our happiness buck by buying experiences rather than things. My family and I are happy to honor that research with a Christmas-at-the-beach vacation.
Still, I’m feeling pressure! Once again, the pressure is self-created, stemming from my drive to create. Maybe because I’ve been newly accepted into The Huffington Post’s blogging community, my brain is on fire! There is so much I want to write. The blogs and the book outline are piling up in my grey matter.
For example, I really wanted to write a blog about the importance of receiving. I was going to question, when there’s so much emphasis on generosity as key to our personal happiness, don’t we need folks on the other end to do the receiving? I would have written that receiving is also giving. I would have suggested reviewing what has been giving to you recently — compliments, wisdom, household help, meals, hugs, cards, invitations, hosts. I would have urged you to be gracious and grateful receivers, to smile and say thank you (rather than, “oh, it’s nothing”) — though, not all the time. I would have explained why “no” sometimes makes common and moral sense, referring to Sonja Lyubomirsky’s precautions in The How of Happiness chapter on kindness.
Oh, it would have been sublime! I’m sure of it — heartfelt and inspiring. Sigh. I just don’t have time to write it.
One reason I am out of time is that I spent the last two days cleaning my house. I’m not that interested in the minutia of life, including housecleaning, but last night I hosted the 10th annual “Women of Maple Corner Yankee Gift Exchange.” I live on a dirt road, and we heat with a wood stove. Believe me, I had to clean. I mean, we can take “permission to be human” just so far.
As the cleaning ate up all my writing time, I began to get resentful. I knew I’d appreciate a clean house and that I’d enjoy the annual holiday gathering, but without the party, I could have been writing. Instead, I had lists of things to do — including writing, which never got crossed off.
Though to-do lists get a bad name, to a certain extent, they bring me comfort. I love crossing items off; it gives me a sense of achievement. I even add items after the fact just so I can cross them off, ideally, with a thick dark marker. Martin Seligman’s P.E.R.M.A. research is fun to consider once again, since the “A” stands for accomplishment. Of course I like crossing off completed tasks. It’s science!
Still, on my hands and knees washing the far corners of the kitchen floor, I had plenty of time to think about what I was not accomplishing. Thankfully, with still more time, on my hands and knees scrubbing the living room carpet, I flipped that thinking around. Rather than perseverate over what I haven’t accomplished, I thought it might be a good idea to appreciate what an awesome year of accomplishments and adventures I have had. You may be familiar with this Mark Twain quote, or others like it: “Be thankful for what you have; you’ll end up having more. If you concentrate on what you don’t have, you will never, ever have enough.” This seems just as applicable to what we do. If we look only at what we haven’t done, we will never, ever be satisfied.
Which brings me to hedonic adaptation. Humans are amazingly adaptable. Good fortune, misfortune — whatever hits us, we adapt. In many ways, this is a wonderful healing trait, as it enables us to find our footing and our smiles once again when life has slammed us into a wall. The flipside is also the downside: what once excited us, what once brought us pleasure, over time becomes ordinary — which leaves us pursuing new excitement and pleasure elsewhere, often at great expense.
However, with an awareness of this process — that is, with mindfulness — we can take steps to maximize our pleasure and minimize the hedonic greying of what brings us joy. Taking time to savor what I’ve already done, rather than pining for what is not going to happen in this moment, is a way to reclaim some excitement from the hedonic dustbin.
Yesterday I realized that my relationship with the yankee swap had also fallen victim to hedonic adaptation. When my friend Nel and I started this party 10 years ago, I was thrilled to have found a place in the Maple Corner calendar of annual traditional events — right up there with Heidi and Lewis’s Martin Luther King Day commemoration, Nancy and Artie’s Mardis Gras (not to mention Barnstock!), Julie’s Channukah pot luck, Maria’s caroling, and JC’s New Year’s Eve blow out. From the first, the Yankee Swap was a huge success — crowded, funny, and even environmental sound. Everyone brought a wrapped present that was something she already owned — no new shopping allowed. Redistributing those presents is where the fun comes in. All of these parties are also a critical element in building community, the kind of community we need when the not-fun times come along.
Fortunately — maybe thanks to my ongoing meditation practice — I realized yesterday that I had adapted to the excitement of hosting this great event. To reclaim some of my previous joy, I turned to gratitude. Yay gratitude! It so often can pull us out of an unnecessary slump. Coming from a stance of gratitude, it is easy to appreciate how incredibly blessed I am to not only live in such a fun and supportive community but also to have my own ways of contributing. Really, I am lucky to host this party, together with my new co-host Roni. Plus my kitchen floor hasn’t been this clean in years.
Last night’s party was the biggest, most boisterous one yet. It was an evening filled with special moments, like welcoming brand new neighbors to the sisterhood of Maple Corner women; the dancing penguin Christmas ornament that made me laugh to the point of tears; an unexpectedly funny exchange about dyeing hair; a wrapped present that looked like a Dr. Seuss book; and a poignant moment, when one woman’s integrity demanded she “steal” back a present which had broken, a present which she had anonymously given in the first place. Her generosity in reclaiming the broken gift resulted in a flood of presents to her at the end.
I am deeply grateful to provide the physical and emotional space for these magical happenings.
One final note about hedonic adaptation. For years and years, the only thing I wanted in this world was beyond my grasp: I ached to become a grandmother. In 2012, that miracle happened with boatloads of joy, love, excitement, etc. But time moves on relentlessly. Our little newborn is now three years old, an accepted fact in our lives. Sure, she’s not the exciting new infant she once was — but when I take the time to step back, to be mindful, to be grateful — my heart nearly explodes with happiness.
Soon, I will be with my granddaughter and other family members for two weeks. No more to-do lists, no pressure (I hope) — but lots of savoring and gratitude. We are all likely to be awash in holiday happiness.
May you as well find your way to a peaceful and joyous holiday.
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