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.

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