The holidays can offer up some experiences that can be both amusing and bemusing. As your heart warms while connecting with family members you haven’t seen in a while, your Uncle Voldemort keeps starting most of his conversations with “I’m not a racist, but…” In my own experience of the winter holiday season, the same juxtaposition arises year after year: on the one hand, I get crankier than those two Muppet judges put together about the notion of Black Friday, Cyber Monday, and the spasms of marketing and consumerism that erupt every Thanksgiving. (Be glad you weren’t on hand when I discovered that Google added “Black Friday” to my calendar as a national holiday.) On the other hand, I like giving and receiving gifts and contemplating all there is to be thankful for in this fleeting life. I’m like a special version of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde in which Ebenezer Scrooge and George Bailey wrestle for control of my consciousness from late November to January 1.
In the spirit of such juxtaposition, I thought I’d make do some comparison shopping for how to spend time (and maybe money) this holiday season. So if you’re up for it, let’s play a little game of “Would You Rather?”
Question #1 – Would you rather:
- Elbow a crazed shopper in the head so you can scoop up the last oscillating, pump-action, hot-glue demagnetizer on the Walmart rack?
- Walk elbow to elbow with your family and friends through the crisp autumn air on a nature hike while you discuss the blessings of life?
If you haven’t heard by now what marketers have known for decades, buying stuff has an addictive quality powered by the neurotransmitter dopamine. Consumer culture and the people who prop it up have essentially hijacked the reward system that’s built into our brains, but shopping tends to provide only very small, short-lived rewards. So if shopping is your drug of choice, then as soon as you’re done with one trip, it’s time for a repeat performance at the mall to keep the good times (and the credit card debt, buyer’s remorse, and feelings of emptiness) rolling.
In contrast, spending time with loved ones and deepening the quality of your relationships can build wellbeing over the long term. At the same time, researchers are proving what us forest, beach, and mountain junkies know instinctively: frolicking in nature improves your mood and health.
Question #2 – Would you rather:
- Try not to have an aneurysm as you sit in your car, stuck in traffic with scores of road-raging hotheads screaming and honking their way to the depressing 80s-era strip mall? Or…
- Laugh your way through sports and games with your niece and nephew, who you haven’t seen in two years, and the ragtag collection of neighborhood kids who showed up to play along?
There’s not much in modern society as soul-sucking as being parked on a road that’s supposed to be moving you right along to your destination, especially if you happen to be stranded behind one of those diesel-spewing, three-ton pickup trucks that not only makes you long for the less noxious smell of the typical outhouse, but also manages to block out the entire 180-degree view your windshield normally offers.
There’s not much in modern society (or for that matter, ancient society) as soul-lifting as having fun with children. The sound of laughter, the joy of movement, the awe that little children have as you dominate them on the basketball court with your Michael Jordanesque athleticism and Wilt Chamberlainian stature! We all know that time flies when you’re having fun, but seriously, I have found that playing sports with kids is one of the finest ways to enter the state of flow.
Question #3 – Would you rather:
- Work all day at Walmart on Black Friday where you face the very real prospect of being trampled by a horde of zombie shoppers?
- Actually take the day off and appreciate a break from the zombie horde?
If you really want to know how grim the day after Thanksgiving can be, then you need to visit the Black Friday Death Count. This website offers a stark and simple list of deaths, each more outrageous than the last. You could find some (dark) humor here, until you consider the very real victims. On the plus side, many Black Friday incidents reported on the website are *only* injuries!
Instead of participating in a shopaholic big-box nightmare, how about a day of calm, or a day of exercise, or a day of whatever the hell you want to do besides maiming others or getting maimed yourself? No one will be disemboweled, defenestrated, or decapitated at REI, the outdoor clothing and gear store. You have to respect the decision of a retailer that closes on the biggest shopping day of the year. It’s not always about the dollars. Sometimes it’s about happier employees who care more about their jobs and appreciate where they work. Sometimes it’s about aligning actions with values.
Question #4 – Would you rather:
- Buy one more trinket for Uncle Voldemort to fill out his supernaturally dusty and bizarrely juvenile collection of vintage toys?
- Make a donation to Post Carbon Institute (or one of many other worthwhile organizations) where the team is trying to work out how humanity can make the transition to a sustainable society?
Sorry for the shameless plug, but it’s time to do things differently on the day after Thanksgiving. We could all be a little happier, a little healthier, and a little more centered. Now if you’ll excuse me, I have to decide between putting on my hockey gear and heading over to Walmart or putting on my hockey gear and playing a game with my daughter and her friends. Tough choice, eh? Happy holidays to you and yours!