[Based on a true story]
That time of the year has come again: the celebration of the return of light (Christmas) after the winter solstice, and the celebration of the start of a New Year where each of us cherish new hopes and new ambitions.
These end of year celebrations are unavoidable, and go together with very specific expectations. We all hope to spend time with our most loved ones, and secretly or not so secretly hope our loved ones will express mutual love by spending time with us and giving us a gift. It is with these expectations that the trouble starts…
Leading up to the end of year celebrations, at some point we all go shopping in a crowded mall on a weekend day that could have otherwise been spent on something more personally relevant, relaxing and/or entertaining.
In spending time at the mall, deep inside each of us, we become aware we are making a sacrifice of time and effort, and so we want the sacrifice to somehow be worth it, or to be compensated for with good feelings.
Initially, the shopping itself may give these good feelings due to the magical spell we fall pray to, when for the first time this year we enter a mall with Christmas decorations, with many small Christmas lights, the green, and the glittery silver and golden colored garlands, Christmas trees, the smell of chocolate and pinewood, the Christmas jingles and the feeling we are part of a happy bustle.
However, as the day spent in the mall progresses, we come more and more to the realization this festive atmosphere is merely an illusion we are walking through, and does not contribute to our immediate happiness. Nothing here comes for free, everything is on sale, and we know that by the end of the day, we will not only have wasted the day, we will be tired and have less money than at the start of the day. As such, at some point in time we become aware the time spent in the mall is not immediately compensated for by genuine good feelings.
Due to past experience, we are also somewhat vaguely aware of the possibility that on the actual days of celebration ahead of us which are the reason for this stress, this day wasted in the mall might never be ‘compensated’ for by the same level of satisfaction and happiness that is inversely equal to the level of shopping related stress we are currently experiencing.
We feel this way because we need to be careful that our choice of gift matches the expectations of the receiver. We are certain that if we don’t pay the most effort, the future receiver of our gift will merely utter a polite but insincere thank you, and not truly appreciate our effort, which renders our efforts and time spent as feeling they were wasted. To prevent feeling this way, we have two alternative choices:
(1) either we spend our time carefully looking for what the receiver might want, and which preferably does not cut in our own finances excessively much, while at the same time not looking like it is something which looks cheap. After all, if the perceived value of the gift is low, then the receiver has less appreciation for the effort the giver has put into getting it. However, as the receiver expects a gift in this period, nothing we buy can ever really make them feel as special as we hope to make them feel. It is human nature: if you expect something, you know it will excite you less than those times you unexpectedly got a gift, and you know you need to prepare your best fake smile and your best act of showing appreciation. In other words, as a giver we intend to create a rush of good feelings in the receiver, which in turn would be sufficient to make us feel our efforts, time and money spent on finding them a gift are worth it. Yet we know in advance we can never reach that goal, for the simple reason that to some extent the receiver already expects to get a gift.
(2) Alternatively, we become the Christmas Grinch and we provide arguments why we don’t like Christmas, and which are aimed to excuse us from participating in the gift giving, and which makes our presence with others on these important days appearing to be merely coincidental. This strategy alleviates us from the decisional stress experienced when having to buy a suitable gift, and the decisional stress on who we’ll spend Christmas with, and who we’ll spend New Year with. However, there is a drawback that Grinches tend to deny and which I find hard to believe they are impervious to. The drawback to being a Grinch is that when you don’t celebrate the most widely celebrated events of the year which are celebrated through each layer of society, you will automatically anticipate every single instance you are going to have to justify yourself, and this anticipation annoys you.
So, basically, whatever strategy we chose to reduce Christmas stress – whether it is to spend little time and little money finding and buying a gift, whether we carefully pick a gift, or whether we follow an avoidance strategy – annoyance is going to be inevitable.
Suddenly everything that contributed to that initially positive Christmas atmosphere, the garlands, the trees, the Christmas jingles become associated with this icky feeling that the amount of annoyance experienced due to the festivities might be equal or higher than the positive feelings we are hoping to experience. So after the initial euphoria of hearing this years first Christmas jingles and of enjoying the whole Christmas atmosphere has faded, many of us soon grow to dislike these very things that initially made us feel warm and fuzzy inside.
Suddenly the happy buzz in the mall becomes an obstacle course where all other shoppers appear to be too self-centered to notice they are blocking others from passing. Too self-centered to notice they are blocking YOU from passing, and you get annoyed by them. The heavy weight of all the food you bought in addition to the few gifts and which you are carrying in many shopping bags, is weighing down on you, while you are already tired. They make it harder to pass all those people who have turned into obstacles on your way back to the car.
On top of that, you realize you forgot to buy a specific advent calendar you planned to give to a little kid in your family, and out of consideration you tell the person who accompanies you that she doesn’t necessarily have to join you in the shop if she doesn’t want to. Instead she can take a rest, while you take care of business. She happily agrees. However, once you are in the shop, you cannot immediately find the advent calendar you were looking for, and before you know it five minutes have passed. You find one more item than what you intended to buy and head to the cashier. There you find out one of the additional thing you bought is way more expensive than you had thought possible, but you pay for it nevertheless. The cashier suggests you get a free customer card so that over time you can get some money back, and as you feel you just wasted too much money, you think getting the card will alleviate a bit of that feeling, so you go through the shop all the way to the end just to get the card. By the time you come out of the shop an additional five minutes later, the person you are shopping with and who you considerately gave the opportunity to have a rest while you were busy, gets angry on you for letting her wait calmly in a warm place a few minutes longer than anticipated.
You feel cheated, because you tried to do good, and she indicated beforehand she preferred waiting outside while you put effort into finding the last item you still needed to buy that day. Yet you get rewarded with her dissatisfaction for not making it easy enough on her. You experience this as the culmination of Christmas shopping stress, and head to your car in a hurried pace, while of course you are holding the vast majority of the shopping bags because you are a strong well intending man who knows this is your duty, if only to save her from more discomfort.
You rush to the car. You are rushed, not only because you want the stress from the day in the shopping mall to end asap, but also because the shopping bags are very heavy and the handles are deeply pressing into the skin of your fingers. In your rush, the other shoppers seem like even more of an obstacle course than they already were, but you have no other option than to plow through. You reach the end of the shopping mall, not sure you are in the right place, finally look behind you and see the person who was angry on you is nowhere to be seen. You realize you are lost, you head back to where you last saw her, hoping to meet her on the way, but you only find her once you are back at the place where you last had been scolded by her for ‘letting her wait’.
You can’t take it any longer: you tell her in a firm yet calm tone that you think it is not fair she got angry on you, and that you feel if anyone should be angry, it should be you on her, for lacking understanding. You don’t give her a chance to speak, because now it is your turn. In the midst of this serious expression of your feelings which you fear might escalate to a verbal wrestling match as based on your previous experience with expressing your feelings to this girl, she just responds with the cutest smile, makes you feel understood, and transforms all the Xmas shopping frustration that has been building up inside of you into a sense of relief…
And that my friends, is the power of a smile!