Holiday greetings (even through a mask) convey wishes for how the giver hopes the receiver will experience the upcoming fete. Such greetings ensure that children quickly learn that their birthdays and those of others should be Happy occasions. Likewise, the turn of the new year, and religious, national, and cultural holidays. Directing partakers of Christmas to be Merry leaves no doubt as to the holiday’s intended level of positive emotion. Do not stop at happy. In French, it’s Joyeux!

Happy, Merry, Joyous. Kind of spells it out, doesn’t it?  Feel. Good. Now! Please.

Verbally extending such a wish doesn’t guarantee that the other person will in fact become happy, merry, or joyous, but it sure doesn’t hurt. Sing Hallelujah, come on, get happy! It’s respect and connection—even if the greeter doesn’t celebrate the holiday herself. Good Pesach. Merry Christmas. Happy Independence Day. 

Note: The main photo (by Louis Bettcher) accompanying today’s post is of the star atop Mt.Batty in Camden, Maine. This annual visual holiday greeting made its first non-December appearance this year as a sign of solidarity in the face of COVID. 

Yes, happiness matters outside of holidays.

Psychology has developed a subfield that studies happiness or well-being in a scientific way, a topic on which I focused in Open Admissions. Students in Reading and Writing in Psychology (a pair of linked courses), which I co-taught with Vince Castronuovo, my buddy from the psych department and fellow lover of holidays great and small, read “A Balanced Psychology and a Full Life,” co-authored by Martin E. P. Seligman, Acacia C. Parks and Tracy Steen.  

“Happiness Study” may sound trivial, but why wouldn’t behavioral scientists want to know about the factors that impact one’s “ordinary” emotional state for the better, and about what in turn that “happier” state impacts?  

Seligman, Parks and Steen tell us that happiness can come in three categories: “pleasure (or positive emotion); engagement, and meaning.” Put another way, we have three available routes to happiness.

We can raise our level of the first kind (what they call hedonics) by eating an ice cream cone or drinking a Belgian ale. We also increase this kind of happiness “by cultivating gratitude and forgiveness,” so don’t think of hedonics as wild hedonism. Unlike with the other two categories, there are limits to how much we can lift our level of this kind of happiness—genetics play a role in setting each person’s limits for “positive affectivity.”

Happiness’s second category—or route to it—involves activity that fully engages us. It doesn’t take much concentration or effort to inhale a plate of nachos or an adult beverage, but gratification requires that we pay attention and do something. Think about activities in which you get lost or absorbed: “…participating in a great conversation, fixing a bike, reading a good book, teaching a child, playing the guitar or accomplishing a difficult task at work.”

Unlike with hedonics, there are no shortcuts to gratification. And active engagement can even feel unpleasant at the time yet still produce deep gratification—think of an athlete grunting through wind sprints or weightlifting. Traveling Rt. 2 also requires that we use our character strengths (such as “creativity, social intelligence, sense of humour, perseverance,” etc.)

The third route has all the characteristics of the second with one additional aspect: we put our character strengths to use “in the service of something larger than ourselves, something such as knowledge, goodness, family, community, politics, justice or a higher spiritual power.” When so applied, our effort gives us a sense of meaning and “satisfies a longing for purpose in life and is the antidote to a ‘fidgeting until we die’ syndrome.” 

Dr. Seligman is Director of the Penn Positive Psychology Center and past president of the American Psychological Association, and author of more than 30 books.

Those Community College of Philadelphia students had no trouble identifying examples of each kind of happiness in their own lives. Like so many CC and first-generation college students, most of them held jobs, often in the restaurant field. During a discussion of the article, when someone mentioned that author Martin Seligman taught psychology just across town at the University of Pennsylvania, a usually quiet student put up his hand. “I served his table last weekend.” 

The world of psychology, of ideas, of possibilities might have shrunk for him just a little bit that moment. I hope he felt less distanced and less alienated from conversations that might never have occurred in his social world before. I hope it served as a welcome and a turning point for him. I hope he and his classmates engage in activities that bring them both gratification and meaning, and that this holiday season they experience all three kinds of happiness.

If you or family members celebrate Hannukah, enjoy the gift-receiving (and giving), and let your mind light on the incalculable value of connection and tradition.

Whatever eves, days, or weeks you celebrate, may they be happy. Savor and share all the holidays within the tradition of the family you were given—and of the families you’ve chosen. 

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Ned Bachus is the author of Open Admissions (Wild River Books, 2017) and of the TURNING POINTS blog on and on his OPEN ADMISSIONS Facebook Page. City of Brotherly Love (Fleur-de-Lis Books), his book of stories, was awarded the 2013 IPPY Gold Medal for Literary Fiction.

One thought on “TURNING POINTS—Merry, Happy, Good!

  1. Love the picture of the “Star” shining down from Mt Battie on the town below. To me, it is saying “Merry Christmas” and “Let the Light shine upon you”. “Tis The Season to be Jolly”

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