How to be happy in a season focused on getting stuff, when the shopping deadlines overwhelm us.
The post Thanksgiving season has been criticized as a time of greedy frenzy, when the balance sheets of retailers are swept into the black by waves of frantic shoppers bingeing on the illusions of good deals and marching to the mantra of “What can I get for Christmas?” Although much of the shopping is ostensibly for gifts for others, part of the excitement is the prospect of winning a game with sellers, competing for the best “savings,” and being the first in your peer group to finish your Christmas shopping.
I am not trying to disparage the retailers or shoppers or criticize the cultural phenomenon. As an emotional intelligence coach, I think it can be helpful to realize that these are the emotional currents we swim in from Thanksgiving to Christmas, and it can be instructive to pause for a moment to think about how our basic emotions are influencing our choices, our behaviors, and our ultimate satisfactions at this time of year.
If we are led by the eye and the ear, tempted and teased by all of the media available to marketing professionals, it is predictable that we will be taught to repeatedly ask ourselves “What can I get for Christmas?” If we unwittingly rehearse this mantra, we will have to focus our attention on what we want to acquire that we don’t already have. We will have to focus on our need rather than our abundance. Sometimes the excitement feels like happiness. The Christmas rush is fun, especially when you can afford it. And it is easy to wrap the shopping in the spirit of generous giving. But even then, by the end of the season, we often find an unpleasant hangover from a month long binge of shopping and wanting. A month of listening to the mandate mantra: “What can I get for Christmas?”
The brain is good with mantras, easily memorized ideas that can be repeated constantly to guide our thinking, acting, and even our feeling. Whatever mantra we are used to tends to hang around, unless we replace it with another. If we wanted to replace the shopper’s mantra with something that could lead to a more sustainable happiness, what would that be?
To paraphrase the Dalai Lama as did Earl, the Angel, on the Showtime series, Saving Grace, “If you want to make others happy, focus on compassion. If you want to be happy yourself, focus on compassion.”
Brain researchers have done studies that prove the Dalai Lama is right. When you practice compassion, the areas of your brain that are active are the same as the ones active when you report feeling happy. The link between the feeling parts of our brain and the thinking parts runs two ways. Feelings can trigger thoughts, for example when anxiety causes you to do an inventory of all the things that can go wrong today. But thoughts can also evoke feelings, for example when the thought of visiting loved ones evokes warm feelings of anticipated hugs and smiles.
So practicing compassionate thoughts, even reciting a compassionate mantra, leads to feeling joy and compassion even before you act on the compassionate intention. And it can make it more likely that you will act with good will and compassion if that is where the focus of your thinking and feeling is pointing you.
So what is a compassionate thought? One that you can easily repeat might be, “How can I help (and who can I help) for Christmas? This is a question that focuses your mind on the fact that you already have something to give. You don’t need to go out and get it. You already have your willingness to help another in whatever way you discover available to you in this moment. To borrow part of another Buddhist mantra, you are already filled with loving kindness. Asking yourself how this loving kindness can be expressed in action provides your creative mind with a goal. Soon you will notice some way that this can be accomplished. You will realize some small act of compassion that can help. Small is good. A whole string of small goals and acts can add up to something pretty big.
How can I help for Christmas? Try repeating it 100 times, 1,000 times, 10,000 times, and see what happens. And after Christmas, just substitute the word today for Christmas.