Health At The Holidays

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By Mark Lundegren

I write today from near Bogotá, Colombia, on an early December day. 

At four degrees latitude and 2500 meters altitude, the climate here is agreeable and temperate year round.  Because of this, there is little chance of a snowy, white Christmas in this traditionally Christian nation.

Christmas is of course only one of several major world holidays now underway or fast approaching, including New Years holidays.  This cross-cultural rush of holiday activity is thought by anthropologists to be rooted in ancient human winter solstice gatherings.  Like so many artifacts of civilization, our present has been shaped by the past and environmental forces in ways we are just beginning to understand.

Writing from the equator, the solstices here are not especially dramatic celestial events.  With just a couple of weeks to go before the next solstice, there are still 11 hours and 50 minutes of daylight here today, a very different experience of light and life than in the upper latitudes of either hemisphere.  Still, the uniform climate and light notwithstanding, holiday preparations are in high gear in Bogotá.  And I suspect the results of these efforts will look much like those of a year ago, as they will around the globe.

The winter and summer solstice holidays are important for a number of reasons.  They are a time of ritual and returning for people, of celebration and rebuilding relationships.  We use these holidays to live more closely with one another and escape our daily routines, and to look ahead together to the future.  Even with the decline in traditional religious beliefs, and the long and de-energizing influence of commercialism on holidays of all sorts, our solstice holidays are still important to our personal and community health and well-being – even if they are not always health-inspiring events.

I have written elsewhere in favor of holiday gatherings.  Of robust and celebratory gatherings, but ones ideally in modified and more consciously heath-promoting forms.  Our individual health requires social and community health, and healthy social networks and communities need some amount of ritual to strengthen relationships and counter entropy.  For this reason, I encourage HumanaNatura community members to create or participate in health-oriented celebration at four key points of the solar year – the two solstices and the two equinoxes.  If you make these times holidays in your social network and infuse them with health-promoting practices, you may find that you can both return to an ancient and satisfying rhythm of ritual, and move ahead to foster healthier and closer daily relationships with those around you.

All this said, an important and often overlooked aspect of even the least healthy of our traditional holidays and rituals is their opportunity to help us make dramatic progress toward new health and well-being, and even to create permanent breakthroughs in our lives.  I know this idea might strike you as extraordinary at first.  After all, traditional holidays are typically replete with unhealthy excesses and can reduce our well-being.  Traditional holidays often re-immerse us in ways of living we struggle to rise above throughout the rest of the year.  How, then, can traditional holidays help us move forward and foster breakthroughs?

To understand the opportunity for new health I speak of, consider this quote from the psychologist Daniel Gilbert, “Ideas can flourish if they preserve the social systems that allow them to be transmitted.”  Gilbert’s quote elegantly expresses an important evolutionary idea about traditional holidays:  the ideas underlying these holidays (and our host communities generally) do not have to be truthful, let alone healthful beyond a certain threshold level, to continue and endure, year after year.  Our thoughts and patterns need only be useful to and solidify our social systems to continue these systems, and to continue themselves.

In other words, our holidays, holiday thinking, and other social rituals and icons need only promote and stabilize the social structures that sponsor them, and little more.  Holidays can support and be supported by communities without substantial positive benefits.  They need only symbiotically reinforce our dominant operating systems.  They need only produce a ready supply of new participants willing to work within the society and be eager celebrate the same emotional and conceptual icons each year.  This is an important insight, one that I encourage you to examine in your life and natural health practice.

If this idea is true – if traditional holidays really can just self-perpetuate, like eddies in a stream, for reasons other than health and social progress – how can it be that I write about the upcoming holidays as opportunities for personal breakthroughs, instead of as scenes of social conservatism, to be guarded against?  If traditional holidays reinforce traditional thinking and traditional social structures, how can we maintain or even accelerate our health and make forward progress toward our future potential during these circular times? 

The breakthrough opportunity, of course, is just what I have described: to see firsthand the coming holiday in your community for what it is in its essence.  Perhaps as a self-perpetuating and self-reinforcing phenomenon, eccentric and idiosyncratic, and not wholly beneficial or necessary in its current form.  Perhaps as a phenomenon that involves a recurring promise of happiness that is at least partially unfounded, but sufficiently compelling to overcome our past memories each year to enable a repetition of its promise again and again into the future.  Compelling enough, perhaps, even to inhibit the alternative ways of thinking, feeling, and acting that may be available to us.

In this proposal to observe the holidays more closely, I do not mean to overlook the fact that all holidays are important opportunities to renew social networks essential to our well-being.  I also remember that the holidays can bring with them moments of great joy and tenderness, amidst their often undeserved hype and frequent use of artifice (e.g. a gift-giving saint that dwells at the arctic pole).  My focus is instead on our seeing what is necessary and what is evolved and peculiar, what is optimal and what is simply persistent, to a seasonal holiday aimed at promoting individual and community health.

On this point, I would ask you to consider that the amount of joy we experience during traditional holiday gatherings is often far below the expectations we bring to them, or the expectations that are brought to us.  Equally, traditional holidays may impede, delay, or even derail our health efforts by weeks and months or longer.  I will add out that traditional holidays are often a time of increased depression and alienation for many people too, of simply too many distractions and unmet expectations.  With this perspective on the holidays in mind, is my proposal for new attentiveness and the potential for breakthrough as implausible as it may have first seemed?  Most of our contemporary holiday rituals evolved over extended periods of time, and were perhaps never specifically designed to foster our health and well-being as they can and should be, now and in the future.

If I may quote again from Gilbert’s book, Stumbling On Happiness , on the often unseen obstacles and mirages in our quest for life satisfaction, “It doesn’t always make sense to heed what people tell us when they communicate their beliefs about happiness, but it does make sense to observe how happy they are in different circumstances.”  I would add that this idea applies to ourselves as well.  We cannot always trust what we tell ourselves and others about happiness, ours and theirs, but we can all faithfully observe what we actually experience in different moments of our lives.  And we each can take special care with the beliefs we communicate to ourselves and others – at the holidays and throughout the year – and learn from our observations of how we truly feel in different circumstances.

Until you, your family, and your community can move to new holidays and rituals consciously made health-promoting, you can use traditional holidays as times of special attentiveness and opportunities for learning, and as opportunities for special nurturing and teaching too.  In this way, and perhaps only in this way, can the physical and psychological force of these traditions (the patterns of thinking and behavior they engender) be better understood and then redirected in new and more beneficial ways. 

As your next holiday gatherings near, use the opportunity you have in these gatherings to observe the beliefs and ideas that are consciously and unconsciously communicated by the people around you, and by you yourself.  Observe how you and others intend to feel and actually do feel before, during, and after holiday gatherings.  Watch to see if your holiday joy is real and authentic, or simply familiar and comforting routine, or even a promenade of clichés and stereotypes.  You may find it is a combination of these things, but in doing so, will learn that the holidays are not unalloyed and elements in them can be changed.

You may find that your traditional holidays are not the same when you are attentive to them, when you experience these times as they are, moment by moment, and not through the lens of expectations.  Perhaps you are worried that something will be lost in this process, that the holidays will be spoiled this year and perhaps forever.  As I have written before, in letting go of our past and limiting traditions, we can chose to fall or soar.  Faced with the proposition of attentiveness over indulgence, especially at the holidays, I know many will encourage you to indulge.  Such is the power of human ritual and ritualized thinking, and why even unhealthy rituals can continue for so long and so far below their potential.  The truth, of course, is that you will find both moments of needed joy and needless excess, as you attend to your holidays.

If you are celebrating a traditional or new form of holiday in the days and weeks ahead, I would enjoy hearing about your experiences, observations, and learnings.  Part of you may think right now that I am simply a “grinch” raining on our holidays, but this idea (one that every North American child knows and is taught to guard against) is exactly the subtle grip of tradition that you may need to overcome more generally in your quest for greater health and well-being.  I would ask that you keep an open mind in the days and weeks ahead, that you take the holidays attentively and in real time this year, and that you see and experience what you will. 

This year, perhaps you will not just avoid the familiar excesses of the holidays, and the stresses they often engender in health-minded people, but may see your holiday traditions in a new light, with new and healthier opportunities for intimacy and joy.  Perhaps a new awareness of the holidays will release and even propelling you forward into the future, into your health, and into new forms of ritual for the future.

Mark Lundegren is the founder of HumanaNatura.

Tell others about HumanaNatura…encourage modern natural life & health!

Healthier Holidays

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By Mark Lundegren

Are the holidays fast approaching? Or are they here already, or just over, and you want advice on how to make your holiday seasons healthier?

We all face an enormous barrage of ideas and icons when major holidays approach. Each year, we are reminded of what to expect, how to act, where to shop, and what to buy or make. Implicit in these reminders is the idea that the holidays should and must be a certain way, even if this ideal is less than ideal and unhealthy in some respects.

Because holidays are in fact so often unhealthy and times of excess, we also are barraged with many ideas on how to mitigate holiday behaviors and get through them with our health intact. I should add that we receive far fewer ideas about how to transform our holidays altogether, so that they are made healthy and restorative, their negative aspects removed entirely, for the future. I will come back to this idea in a moment.

Of course, most of us relish and have high expectations for traditional holidays. Because of this, we are often conflicted about the holidays. They are seemingly special times of the year, but we also know they can slow or even derail our long-term quests for greater health and personal well-being. So what are we to do?

Below are seven steps you can take to make your holidays much healthier. Some are simple ideas to offset the least healthy aspects of traditional holiday rituals. Others go beyond this to help you reconsider your approach to holidays altogether. Have you considered a family trek across Costa Rica or Greece or Japan for your next major holiday? If not, read on:

1. Start a conversation – if your holiday celebrations typically get the better of you, or if holidays are times of stress and negativity, you are probably not alone and it’s time to talk. Naming the parts of your holidays that are unhealthy and undesirable is the first step to improving them. This may seem, and even literally be, sacrilegious in some settings, but you will have to make a start if you want to change your holiday environment. Perhaps there are members of your family and social network you can start the discussion with, building support before you try to influence the more conservative members of your clan and community. Talking about the negative aspects of a holiday ideally should be done well before or right after the holiday, setting a new tone before emotions run high or using events of the recent past as examples. In any case, a discussion of holiday excesses should focus on specific, actionable issues, rather than the holiday in itself. Since many of our major holidays evolved over hundreds of years, their improvement may take more than a year or two.

2. Dematerialize – in the last hundred years, many traditional holidays have become much more commercialized and materially focused than before the industrial age. This development is apparent not just in the size and range of gifts that are given or expected, but also in displays of new wealth and status, both of which can lead to negative, instead of positive, holiday emotions. How did our holidays unravel so in this way? It’s important to understand the origins of our major world holidays and rituals. Most began in earlier times when meeting our basic materials needs was not guaranteed, and even quite uncertain, and when religious traditions were much stronger. Holiday gift giving was therefore a useful source of saving and provisioning. In our more industrialized, secular, and competitive times, these practices have evolved to the point where they now run contrary to the goal of group bonding that initially engendered our holidays. In your family talks, getting out of the rut of obligatory and ostentatious gift giving, and ensuring care with displays of fortune, should figure large. After all, the expense of gifts or lifestyles has little correlation with holiday (or life) satisfaction, while positive interpersonal experiences certainly do.

3. Set new limits – once you have talked your family out of the shopping malls and back to hearth and hamlet, another important step is to set limits on the most negative aspects of your holiday traditions. Depending on where you live and your customs, this can involve a wide range of behaviors and pastimes. Beyond uncontrolled gift-giving, perhaps the most common holiday negatives are excesses with food and alcohol, though by no means does this exhaust a list of possible areas where new limits may be needed. In your family talks, share your concerns and listen to the concerns of others. You may find a willingness to agree to limits and even new ideas for ways to celebrate together, again knowing that not everyone will be receptive to change at first. The act of discussing holidays, after all, is something new itself and should be considered progress. As mentioned before, most holidays emerged and developed without conscious thought, at both the community and family levels. It is only by chance that your holidays will be optimal unless you and others consciously make them so.

4. Chose your company – as you begin to design and optimize your holidays to promote health and well-being, inevitably you will find people around you who share and do not share your goals and views. This can be welcome and painful, and it may force choices and decisions. I do not mean to divide families on the issue of health at the holidays, and the importance of health and well-being generally, but there may be extreme situations that call for extreme actions. If you have people in your family or social network that are abusive at the holidays, for example, or that simply do not share your basic values, it may be time to seek other holiday company or to minimize your time with them (while remaining charitable and open to new beginnings).

5. Eat before dinner – when all else fails, you can always preempt holiday excesses with a bit of dietary inoculation. Remember when you were a child and your parents told you not to eat before dinner because you would spoil your appetite? You get the idea. Filling up on healthy foods before or amidst traditional holiday meals and celebrations can greatly limit your intake of unhealthy food and drink that you would otherwise later regret. As with all steps toward healthier holidays, this step needs to be handled and communicated with care to avoid offending others in your social network.

6. Take a walk or have a talk – in addition to minimizing the health negatives of traditional holidays, you can also begin to add new practices to them that are health promoting and supportive of deeper interpersonal bonds, which again was the purpose of holidays in the first place. Consider planning walks or hikes when you are together, or other fun and guilt-free outdoor activities. Alternatively, you might plan discussions and talks when you and your family and friends are together. These can take the form of sitting together and discussing issues of common concern or recapping the last few months and talking about plans for the future. So often, the holidays are over before we know it and we feel things were left unsaid. Create opportunities for rewarding discussion and sharing. Will this be uncomfortable for some at first? Of course, but setting time for talks can evolve to become among the most memorable aspects of our holidays.

7. Consider reinvention – as I mentioned at the beginning, in addition to correcting the less desirable aspects of traditional holidays, we have the opportunity to reinvent our holidays altogether for the future. Keep in mind that holidays and rituals are important for maintaining our social and community networks, but also that all holidays emerged over time, and rarely by design, to arrive at their present state. Holidays are important, but need not continue in their current form. Imagine new ways and reasons to celebrate the holidays and the gatherings of people we may not normally see or speak with. Perhaps pilgrimages to sacred natural places or other new shared experiences that nurture us and build deeper bonds are in our future.

Wherever and however you celebrate traditional holidays, you probably have more options than you realize for improving the form and function of your holiday gatherings. Consider the many ways you can remove or minimize the negative aspects of your celebrations, while building on the positives and perhaps re-emphasizing to the essence of most of our holiday – deepening and renewing the social networks that are critical to our personal and community health.

Mark Lundegren is the founder of HumanaNatura.

Tell others about HumanaNatura…encourage modern natural life & health!