A friend recently posed a question online about how many of his friends and acquaintances who read that blog enjoyed the holidays. I first responded with a simple, “Do I really need to answer this?” because I figured that he knows me well enough to know how crazy I go with Christmas decorations and such.
I saw only a couple of other replies before one mutual acquaintance posted that he doesn’t like holidays, and has often wondered if the “joyful people” are brain-damaged or perhaps have butlers to handle all the stressful tasks.
It’s an old cliché: happiness doesn’t exist, or isn’t real, or is only experienced by stupid/shallow/vacuous/complacent people. I get tired of running into those attitudes, particularly because it is factually not true. The Journal of the Society of Neuroscience published numerous studies that showed that people with natural positive dispositions have significantly higher activity in the logical reasoning centers of the brain than those with negative dispositions. It has long been known to neuroscience that anger and negativity actually shuts down the rational parts of the brain, but the newer research suggests there may be more of a chicken-and-egg phenomenon going on.
In other words, they can’t tell if the positive disposition is caused by the higher functioning in the logic centers of the brain, or if the happiness causes the higher functioning. Or if there’s some other process somewhere else that causes both.
And I’ve known plenty of people who have a very negative disposition who are good at logical thinking. So I know there isn’t a simple correlation between negative attitudes and lack of logical aptitude. But that’s my point: just as being morose, bitter, and cynical is no guarantee of great intelligence or insight, being happy is not the equivalent of being thoughtless. I’ve known plenty of thoughtless people who are never happy, and always seem to be angry, or at the very least, indignant.
Please note that by thoughtless, I don’t mean stupid. Some people are very intelligent, able to reason through complex problems with ease and so forth. It’s not that they are incapable of thinking, it’s that they don’t do much of it outside of their particular area of interest, if at all. Instead of discussing something with someone they disagree with, they simply repeat an argument they thought out long ago.
No amount of new information will make them waver from their current notion. It’s like all of their previous conclusions and explanations have been carefully assembled into an elaborate construct in their mind, not unlike a house of cards. You can’t change one of the conclusions without bringing the whole thing down in a mess. So they must protect this construction at all costs.
There was a time when I was going down that path. I wasn’t cynical about everything, by any means. My fundamental hopeful arrogant temperament was definitely active, but the arrogant part was a bit too ascendent. I didn’t just feel that I could solve most problems, I had developed a strong sense that most other people couldn’t. And I held those people in contempt. Not anyone I knew personally, of course, it was always “those people” out there, ruining it for the rest of us.
There wasn’t a single epiphany that got me out of that contemptuous space. There was a point where a good friend took me to task for verbally bullying other people. I had hated bullies my whole life, and to find myself turning into one certainly gave me pause. I’d never really grasped one of the important implications of being raised by an abusive parent: when your childhood role model is an abuser, abusive behaviors seem natural. I got out of the very homophobic environment where I’d grown up, and that helped me to see that there were possibilities beyond always being on the defensive. I eventually fell in love, which led me to accept that I was most definitely gay, and got me out of the closet.
But those were my particular struggles. Clearly not everyone holding others in such contempt is doing so for the same reasons I was. But if you really believe that someone who feels differently than you do about something as silly as holidays can only feel that way because they are brain damaged? You have some serious issues of your own that you need to work out.
In my friend’s original query, he provided some context about why he was asking. Since he doesn’t enjoy the holidays much, and it seems that so many people do, he sometimes wonders if that means something is wrong with him.
Everything I said above about how being happy and joyful about something doesn’t mean you’re vacuous or damaged applies to not being enthusiastically happy about it.
Happiness and unhappiness are not analogous to physical properties of objects. Putting different people into the same situation doesn’t guarantee mean that each will feel the same about what happens.
For years I always felt guilty because I didn’t experience seasonal affective disorder, nor did I suffer the holiday blues, and so forth. I knew and loved people who did experience those things, and I fretted that my silly holiday exuberance might make them feel worse. Then one day one such friend told me, “Oh! Just because I can’t enjoy the holidays doesn’t mean I don’t want you to. Please! Hoping to hear about people I like having a good time afterward is one of the things that gets me through my holiday depression. Go out! Have a great time! Come back and tell me all about it!”
Since I developed my own variant of the holiday blues, becoming at least moody from around the time of my & Ray’s birthdates until the anniversary of his death every year, I’ve tried to take the same attitude. Other people having a good time, and me being able to be happy for them, is part of how I get through it.
So I’m never going to disparage them for feeling happy when I’m not.