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Laurie Helgoe Ph.D.
Laurie Helgoe Ph.D.

Are Holidays Only for the Happy?

Happy represents only one of the emotions associated with Valentine's Day.

Happy Birthday!

Happy New Year!

Happy Valentine’s Day!

I’m a fan of holidays, rituals, time set aside to acknowledge what means the most to us.

I’m not a fan of our default greeting.

The demand to be happy is as American as apple pie, and just as sickening when over-consumed. We pursue happy – we have the right! -- and we tell others to be happy. And whether we’re acknowledging a birthday or holiday dedicated to love, we should be happy about it.

My problem with the happy greeting starts with the fact that it may set the recipient up to feel worse. A classic study by Iris Mauss and associates showed that, when people were primed to value happiness more, they ended up feeling worse in happy situations. The pressure to value happiness more, especially when a happy situation was provided (a feel-good movie), left participants feeling bad about not feeling good enough. It is not a stretch to see that happy greetings may provide the very priming that set people up to feel bad in this study.

"Broken Heart Cookie 1" by Olivier Kaderli via Flickr (CC by 2.0)
Source: "Broken Heart Cookie 1" by Olivier Kaderli via Flickr (CC by 2.0)

But I have a bigger problem with the happy greeting, especially as we approach Valentine’s Day. Equating the day with happy limits our experience. If Valentine’s Day is a celebration of love, there are a whole host of emotions that come with it: joy, grief, longing, vulnerability, sadness, nostalgia, heartache, and that long-forgotten mix of emotions poets referred to as sweet melancholy. There are also a whole host of people for whom Valentine’s Day is poignant, but painful. And there is a very large group of individuals called introverts, who don’t relate so well to the high-energy, smiley-faced happy touted in our society. As I discuss in Introvert Power, that kind of happy is a “high arousal” emotion and introverts, who are generally looking to tone down the mental activity in their heads, prefer low-arousal versions of happy – those subtle emotions honored in Japan and barely recognized here. Think of the feelings that come with a quiet evening by the fire, reflections on memories, or relaxed cuddling.

How would it be to openly acknowledge a richer and more nuanced range of emotions when marking events in our life? How would it be to acknowledge a more diverse range of people in our greetings? To customize the message?

It would take more thought, of course, but then, that’s how we demonstrate love.

About the Author
Laurie Helgoe Ph.D.

Laurie Helgoe, Ph.D., is an author and clinical psychologist studying the relationship between personality and culture. She is an Associate Professor of Behavioral Sciences at the Ross University School of Medicine.

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