Over the Thanksgiving holiday, I introduced my 3-year-old daughter Marty to the 1965 classic A Charlie Brown Christmas, an animated feature that would never get greenlit in today’s world of over-protective — and overly precious — parenting. The opening lines of the film set the stage for what is one of the most poignant and sophisticated messages geared toward youth I’ve ever seen. “I think there must be something wrong with me, Linus,” Charlie Brown, who’s battling a whole host of neuroses that could rival Woody Allen’s, says to his friend. “Christmas is here but I’m not happy. I don’t feel the way I’m supposed to feel. I just don’t understand Christmas, I guess. I like getting presents and sending Christmas cards and decorating trees and all that, but I’m not happy. I always end up feeling depressed.”
As the story unfolds, we learn the source of Brown’s blues — an excess of holiday cheer driven by consumerism and untethered to more substantial and enduring forms of meaning. Although Brown eventually finds solace and significance in the Christian theology underlying the national holiday, I spoke with a top social psychologist and philosopher about how the quest for deeper meaning (however you define it) can temper your holiday blues.
The root of Brown’s sad state of mind may stem from the disconnect between how he feels and the overwrought displays of joyfulness. Sonja Lyubomirsky, Ph.D., a professor of psychology at the University of California, Riverside, who studies happiness, acknowledges how overwhelming the cultural imperative to be happy can be: “The emphasis on happiness can feel oppressive,” especially, she notes, during the holidays. “The idea that we should all be happy all the time is ever present in the United States,” she explains, but it reaches a crescendo this time of year, when we’re expected to be as plump with cheer as Jolly Old St. Nick. “When you feel like everyone else is happy and having a good time, the contrast is more salient, more striking,” she says.
Paul Thagard, Ph.D., an eminent Canadian philosopher and author of The Brain and the Meaning of Life, agrees, adding: “Pursuing happiness by itself, or cheer, is not a very good strategy because it’s not clear what that is,” he says, pointing to a 2013 study that demonstrates the ephemeral nature of happiness compared to the more enduring and satiating nature of meaning. “Meaningfulness…may involve understanding one’s life beyond the here and now, integrating future and past,” the paper reads, “In contrast, happiness, as a subjective feeling state, exists essentially in the present moment.”
With that in mind, Thagard and Lyubomirsky urge us not to get caught up in the gaudy theater of holiday cheer and instead anchor ourselves in meaning, as Charlie Brown eventually learns in the film. Try this 5-pronged approach:
Cultivate deep connections
Thagard advises us to use the opportunity of festive get-togethers to have real heart-to-hearts with family and friends: “The best thing people can do is to try to foster the relationships they have in ways that reach deeper levels of connection,” he says. Broach subjects — parenthood, relationships, life purpose, dreams, defining memories — that forge deeper bonds that make you feel seen, understood and known.
“Express gratitude — through an email, a phone call, in person — to someone in your life you’re grateful for,” Lyubomirsky says. “Thinking about the things you take for granted, as opposed to what you want and are not getting,” she adds, can help build on your sense of meaning. To boot, a study came out earlier this year showing that gratitude predicts hope and happiness.
Focus on something outside yourself
Part of Charlie Brown’s trouble is that he’s stuck in an endless cycle of neurotic and self-loathing thoughts. “It’s morally required and more psychologically desirable when people stop thinking so much about themselves,” Thagard argues. Research published in the Personality and Social Psychology Bulletin last year showed self-centeredness has a reciprocal relationship with loneliness — which means that learning how to get off the merry-go-round of self-obsession and see beyond yourself has healing potential. “I think a lot of life’s problems are due to too much self-focus or self-absorption,” Lyubomirsky says, “So anything you can do to take the focus off yourself will be beneficial.”
Find opportunities to help others
One way to redirect your attention is to seek out opportunities to help others. “Practice acts of kindness,” Lyubomirsky suggests. For instance, “choose someone in your life this week and do something to make them happier.” Thagard says that research indicates people who serve others have a greater sense of meaning and purpose. Studies have demonstrated the mental health benefits of volunteering, so pick up some shifts at a soup kitchen or charity for children to feed your sense of meaning.
Place community above individuality
Thagard, who holds dual citizenship in Canada and America, where he worked as an academic for 15 years, says that Canada’s collectivist society (where there are more and better social programs, including robust unemployment insurance and universal healthcare), as opposed to America’s individualistic one, fosters a greater sense of well-being. Studies support his point and two recent reports indicate that while life expectancy in Canada has increased over the past century, it’s gone down over the last three years in the United States. With that in mind, getting involved in community-based activities (neighborhood gardens, local politics and festivities) could boost your sense of connection and meaning this holiday season and beyond.