Why the Holidays Are So Stressful For So Many

“The holidays are coming. It’s a time of complete emotional stress.”

To say this is considered a self-evident truth. But why is it true?

I maintain that holidays, while perfectly fine and pleasant, are not necessary for happy people. Happy people enjoy their lives all year long. Happy people actually enjoy their work, and maybe even love their work. They enjoy their personal relationships, and only take part in relationships that are enjoyable and fulfilling. Of course they want to take breaks, and it’s perfectly fine to do that — on a holiday, or not.

The problem with holidays as we know them, especially holidays like Thanksgiving and Christmas, is that they stir up the unhappiness of people who are already unhappy in the first place. Some unhappy people know they’re unhappy, but many unhappy people don’t realize they are. Consequently, when forced at holiday time to “be happy,” as if on command, it creates something of a personal crisis for them. It creates a feeling that, “I should be happy, but I’m not. Everyone else seems to be, but I’m not.”

Unfortunately, holidays are also a time when unhappy people, who are also manipulative, feel less uninhibited about imposing their unhappiness on others. In many families, there’s an unwritten (or even explicit) rule that, “It’s holiday time. You have to be happy.” Now look at this unwritten rule from the perspective of someone who isn’t happy, and who wants to make others as unhappy as possible. To such a person, holidays are an opportunity. “Everybody has to be nice. So they’ll put up with whatever I impose on them.” This might not be what the manipulative person says to him- or herself, but this is the overall, subconscious motive if nothing else. This motivation sounds unlikely or even shocking to someone who doesn’t want to impose unpleasantness on others. But a segment of the population is like this, and holiday time represents a golden opportunity for these petty little psychological tyrants, at least one of whom is in just about every family.

Another reason holidays can be stressful is that so much hope is placed in them. “It’s my only chance to be happy all year long. So it’s got to be pleasant.” This leads people, even ones who are not normally manipulative or imposing, to become this way in the desperate quest to squeeze at least a few days or weeks of happiness out of the whole year. How sad. And how unnecessary. With the right attitude about life, it’s possible to be happy and content all year long. By doing what you want to do, within reasonable and legal boundaries, of course, all year long, you don’t “need” a holiday in order to grant you a few moments of happiness. And it never works out anyway. If you depend on one holiday, or even one special day (such as a wedding day) to provide for you all the happiness that you lack in the rest of life, it begs the question: Why aren’t you living a happier life when it really counts, on days other than holidays or special events?

Resentment and entitlement come out at holidays too. I hear the complaints. “Mary is so selfish. She wants the holiday to be exactly as SHE wants it. Who died and made her queen?” But Mary feels entitled to have things her way at the holidays. Why? Because she denies herself things all year long that she shouldn’t be denying herself. This is the problem with the widespread ethics of self-sacrifice, not something that everyone practices, but something everyone is told is the proper way to live. Well, if you make sacrifices all year long, which makes you virtuous according to this moral standard, then why shouldn’t you get a little bit extra for yourself, even at cost to others, at holiday time?

It seems like a reasonable enough question, until you consider two things. One, why are you sacrificing all year long in the first place? Yes, you’ve been told that you should, but that doesn’t automatically make it right. And, two, if self-sacrifice IS the right thing to do, then what business do you have expecting an exception to the rule even one day out of the year? These logical questions are not usually appreciated, assuming they¬†are ever¬†raised, but logic and reason are the only way out of any psychological mess. Refusal to consider these questions will result in … well, only more and more holiday stress.

Happy holidays to you. But much more importantly, I wish you a happy and fulfilled life. It’s up to you to live a self-interested and self-initiating, self-responsible life, all year long. Holidays will still be nice, but they won’t be necessary. Should you enjoy the holidays? Sure. But try to live the kind of life where holidays aren’t really necessary.