Many of us are waiting for happiness. We fervently believe that, if we’re not happy now, we’ll be happy when our career finally takes off, when we have that baby, when we find Mr. Right, when we strike it rich. This widespread “myth of happiness” is harmful, because our overly high expectations can instigate a major crisis when we realize that achieving those dreams has not made us as intensely happy (or for as long) as we believed they would.
The holidays is such a time rife with Pollyannaish expectations. We look forward to them all year long, cutting out holiday recipes, writing to-do lists, researching gifts, and making travel plans. We anticipate the delight on our children’s faces when they open presents, the wonderment we feel during religious rituals, the excitement of a long-awaited vacation, and the joy of reuniting with old family members and friends.
Science shows, however, that high expectations are frequently both erroneous and toxic. Toxic because they may lead to letdown and even depression. Erroneous because we focus too much on the salient high points (e.g., the vacation, voyage, or feast) and too little on the quotidian chores, uplifts, and hassles that are what influence our happiness the most. Researchers have found that annoyances are worse than calamities and that daily delights impact our well-being more than major events.
Unfortunately, the holidays are replete with daily trials, strains, and aggravations. The cookies are burnt, the car won’t start, the luggage is lost, the alcoholic uncle ruins brunch once again, and the children are fighting. We conveniently forget our penchant to become overwrought during car trips or our tendency to revert to adolescent behavior when criticized by a parent or upstaged by a sibling. Accordingly, when our holiday fantasy is confronted by everyday reality, more often than not, it fails to live up. Why aren’t we happier during the holidays? Because, despite being annually challenged, our expectations for holiday joy remain over-optimistic and over-confident year after year.
A version of this post appeared in the New York Times online Opinion Pages, "Room for Debate."