It is all too easy to fall into the idea that our happiness, our enjoyment is dependent upon forces outside of ourselves – dependent upon our families, dependent upon our incomes, dependent upon our geographical location or the circumstances of our health. Meanwhile, scientists are finding what our ancestors knew: enjoyment comes from within the individual. The Elements of Enjoyment are created or destroyed by our own attitude, not by our circumstances.
Holiday time can be the hardest time of year. Thanksgiving, Christmas, Hanukkah and New Year can be difficult for many people. As the holiday time of year comes around, we are flooded with memories of how things used to be. Life is change, but these days most people cannot keep up with how quickly things are changing. Friends move away or pass away. Families drift apart and move to different parts of the country. Absent loved ones and holidays past haunt us like Jacob Marley’s ghost and interfere with the enjoyment of the present holiday season. Many people who enjoy their lives throughout the rest of the year end up depressed over the holidays because of the desire for things to be other than they are.
We all have very high expectations of what the holidays mean. People become unhappy when things do not live up to their expectations. An otherwise enjoyable holiday can be completely ruined for many people if one aspect of that holiday is not quite as it should be. In the present age, with families many miles apart, it can be a real challenge to create a meaningful holiday. If we can rise to that challenge there still is enjoyment to be had.
The Science o Enjoyment
In recent years, psychologists have come much closer to defining the experience called enjoyment. Scientists cannot tell you what will cause you to experience enjoyment, but they can tell you what the prerequisites are. Different people enjoy different activities, but there are some common states of mind that are shared by all enjoyable activities.
According to Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi a former head of the psychology department at the University of Chicago, research has found the elements of enjoyment that are common to all enjoyable activities. The research has shown that to be having fun the mind must be paying attention to what we are doing right now. The individual’s awareness needs to be focused on the situation at hand, not upon what used to be or what should be.
Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi has contributed pioneering work to our understanding of happiness, creativity, human fulfillment and the notion of “flow” — a state of heightened focus and immersion in activities such as art, play, and work.
An enjoyable holiday season must be created new each year. We have to focus on this year’s circumstances for enjoyment truly to be found in the moment. We can reminisce about the past and plan our expectations for the future, but the experience of enjoyment exists only in the present. To enjoy the holidays this year, we must focus on this year.
An enjoyable sense of accomplishment is experienced when we are engaged in activities that are challenging and requires the use of our skills. Preparing for the holidays is a challenging activity, and there are many skills to sharpen. Cooking is not the only skill required to make an enjoyable holiday. Probably the most challenging skill is our social skills. Either manic or depressed, shopping-crazed or Scrooged-out, people can get pretty hard to deal with during the holiday season … and sometimes it takes all of our skills just to keep them from driving us crazy.
The Holiday’s were intended to be times of Joy
There are many layers of meaning involved in the holidays. Each of the holidays given to us by our ancestors was originally framed in a larger context than mere shopping sprees. Thanksgiving is a time for being grateful for what we have, not for being sad for what we do not have. Christmas is supposed to be a time of sharing, a time of love … not just a season of mass marketing.
For most of our lives, the holidays revolve around family activities. These days, although it is not always possible to be with our families, we can celebrate with those who are around us. If you have no friends, then the holidays are a good time and excuse to start making new friends. The meaning of the holiday season does not change nearly as much as the individual details of our circumstances.
We need clear goals about what the holidays really mean to us. We need feedback that we are celebrating our own lives and loved ones not just getting caught up in the marketing hype. I have often wondered what would happen if a single Christmas went by without anyone buying anything they did not need. Would it signal the end of civilization as we know it or would it be the beginning of a return to the true meaning of Christmas?
The shopping frenzy mentality of many people forces them to give up another important aspect of enjoyment … a sense of control. Feeling obligated to buy all kinds of stuff robs us of the energy and enjoyment of doing those things that epitomize the holiday spirit. Rather than feeling helpless in the onslaught of mindless consumerism, we must assume control of doing those things that make the season meaningful in our own lives.
The old saying that “time flies when you’re having fun” is very true. If people would concentrate on the task at hand, they would forget about the regrets of the past and fears of the future … and time does fly. This allows the holidays to pass more quickly and much more enjoyable than spending our time wishing things were other than they are.
Enjoyment and the Art of Longevity
I do a lot of lectures and seminars on healthy longevity. I was once talking to a group at a retirement community about the possibility of people regularly living to the age of 120. People started groaning, “Who would want to live that long? You would outlive everyone that you love. Who would want to be alive if no one who you loved was around to share that with you?” At this point, an older gentleman stood up and said, “I’m 99 years old now, and in one month I’ll be 100 years old. What these people are saying is absolutely true. If you’re so narrow-minded, that you can only love a handful of people in your life, you’re going to run out of people to love. If you want to live to be my age, you’d better learn how to love new people. As long as you learn how to love new people, you never run out of people to love.” I thought that was one of the wisest statements that I have ever heard in my life. What he said is absolutely true. Learning how to love new people is a skill in which most of us need practice. Our happiness in life very much depends upon our skills at loving new people.