December 21, 2008

Have a Cheerful Christmas?

Ed Halliwell writes in the Guardian under the headline "Reasons to be cheerful". He has a Buddhist view on the topic of happiness and makes the case that no reason is needed for being cheerful. He interprets the word "cheerful" as an attitude, unlike "happiness", which is a state of affairs.
The next week or so will bring most of us a higher-than-usual number of wishes for our "happiness". Whether it's "Happy Christmas" (which seems to have eclipsed the more traditional exhortation to be "merry"), "Happy New Year", or the religion-neutral American import "Happy holidays", so many hopes for contentment can have the unintended effect of seeming like a reproach, especially if we are not feeling as chipper as the season appears to demand.


However, there is another, much more useful phrase for describing the potential of the holiday period – "the season of good cheer". Whereas the word happiness implies an end state, the result of causes and conditions over which we may have little control, cheerfulness is volitional, a deliberate decision to be good-spirited. Indeed, it may be especially appropriate to rouse "good cheer" at times – such as midwinter – when outer circumstances seem wretched and we are more likely to feel downcast.


The acceptance part of the process is important – cheerfulness should not be confused with the sometimes-nauseating "everything's-going-to-be-alright" approach that positive thinking gurus often appear to advocate. The purpose of cheerfulness isn't to deny that life is sometimes shit, it's that we aren't dependent on the happiness that comes from circumstances in order to find ways to wonder at it – as one Buddhist elder once asked me: "Rather than just liking the smell of roses, or hating the smell of manure, perhaps you could start appreciating that you have a nose?" (Read the whole story)
I guess this is what is usually referred to as "Christmas spirit". I guess what Ed wants to wish for everybody is: take it easy. I couldn't agree more.

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