“How to Build a Life” is a weekly column by Arthur Brooks, tackling questions of meaning and happiness. Click here to listen to his new podcast series on all things happiness, How to Build a Happy Life.
“I’m dreaming of a white Christmas,” croons the voice stuck in your head after a few minutes in CVS. “Just like the ones I used to know.” This Christmas carol, like most, is an anthem for mental time travel. Humans have the ability to project ourselves into the future and past, and even to do so simultaneously: We dream about a future Christmas that is like the old days. This time of year, we zigzag between the excitement and anticipation of the next few weeks and the warmth and sentimentality of past occasions.
And in between the past and future? The present, which all too often brings disappointment. If you’ve ever felt let down by Christmas morning or a New Year’s Eve party, you’re not alone. Our brains are well equipped to sabotage our enjoyment of the present holidays, not because the events are necessarily bad, but because reality tends to pale in comparison with our carefully curated memories and aspirations.
When you lament how much worse Christmas has become as you’ve gotten older, your brain is probably lying to you, exaggerating the good times of the past and undercounting the joys of the present. But with a little practice, you can see through those distortions and find the real goodness of this holiday, no matter if it’s just like the ones you used to know.
Holiday traditions are built on memory, which psychologists believe takes two forms. The first is semantic memory: our knowledge about the world and instructions for how to use it. Semantic memory is how you know that “Christmas happens every year and is a warm and meaningful time for my family.” The second is episodic memory, which is the conscious recollection of personal experiences, such as, “In 1991, Uncle Fred got drunk on Christmas, screamed obscenities at the neighbors, and passed out in the front yard.”
Episodic memory is like having a virtual photo album and video library in your head. Yet its existence remains a bit of a scientific mystery. Some scholars see it as an evolutionary quirk that we would have past experiences seared into our minds. For example, the cognitive neuroscientist Endel Tulving hypothesized that it is an artifact or embellishment of semantic memory without a clear purpose.
Other scholars believe that happy episodic memories function as a kind of emotional analgesic when the present is difficult. “Nostalgia is a psychological resource we use to help cope with negative emotions,” the psychologist Clay Routledge, who has written about this effect, told me in an email. “If present circumstances are distressing in some way our minds tend to naturally drift to the past.”
Episodic memories don’t have to be accurate to serve that purpose. Psychologists have shown that false memories—for example, about experiencing something that never actually happened—are very common and easy to provoke. This is why eyewitness testimony in trials is so unreliable, especially after witnesses have been coached by attorneys.
We can and do fictionalize the past and future—but rarely the present—to make them better. False memories sometimes contain horrible traumas that did not occur. But it often works the other way: We edit our recollection to picture the past as more pleasant than it really was. This is a phenomenon called fading affect bias, which occurs because, as our emotions about the past change, we tend to forget the bad parts of experiences faster than we forget the good. One possible explanation is that we internalize the lessons we learned from a particular event only later on, so the benefit-cost ratio rises over time, and we find it easier to look back on it positively as we age.
Meanwhile, just as our minds sometimes scrub the past of negative moments, we might gloss over the ones we might endure in the future. People derive a lot of happiness from anticipating positive experiences and planning for them, effectively placing themselves in a better future of their own making. Negative moments are obviously less pleasant to imagine; instead, parents, teachers, and celebrities counsel us to imagine, plan for, and savor a bright future.
Whereas we can revise the past to forget the fights at the dinner table and imagine a future in which everyone loves their gifts, we cannot edit the present. Further, research has shown that we have a built-in bias to focus on the negative aspects of current events. Scholars see this as an adaptive survival tendency, to keep us attuned to threats and increase our learning. During the holidays, however, it just keeps us focused on the fact that Aunt Marge can’t stop talking about politics.
Taken together, these cognitive phenomena conspire to make the holidays less meaningful than you remember and less fun than you expected. The solution is not to change the present, however; it is to rely less on the past and future. In other words, the secret to a great holiday is mindfulness.
Mindfulness is often associated with meditation practices and Eastern traditions such as Buddhism. But as my colleague Ellen Langer told me when I interviewed her for a recent podcast episode, mindfulness is not necessarily a spiritual or religious concept at all; rather, it is a set of habits to help you stay conscious of the current moment, instead of being distracted by memories of the past and projection into the future. Based on our conversation, here are three practices anyone can employ for a more satisfying holiday season.
1. Pay attention.
The great enemy of mindfulness is distraction. We are so accustomed to mental time travel that being fully mentally present can be hard work. The solution, according to Langer, is simple: Make a practice of noticing things. At holiday dinners, some families have a tradition of going around the table, with each person naming one or two things they are grateful for. The main point is to set a mood of thankfulness, but such rituals—especially if you limit them to the present by asking people to name something that happened today that they’re grateful for—also imprint those “nows” onto everyone’s brain by helping them notice ordinary things they might otherwise overlook.
2. Ditch your preconceptions.
Humans have a tendency to assume that life stays still, Langer said in our conversation. “So if you’ve seen it once, you’ve seen it; you don’t need to keep paying attention to it.” This leads to unrealistic and outdated expectations. For example, you might assume that, because your cousin’s gingerbread cookies were burnt five years ago, you won’t want to eat anything he brings over—even though he’s worked a lot on his baking since then.
You probably have lots of expectations about the holidays, based on the way they were (as far as you remember)—and when the present differs from that, you’ll be tempted to assume something is wrong. You’ll be happier if you get rid of your preconceived notions and just experience it for what it is. This year, the gingerbread might be delicious.
3. Find the good parts.
Langer asserts that part of mindfulness is having a “heads I win, tails I win” attitude to life. “Good” and “bad” are categories you choose in the moment. So you might as well choose “good,” over and over, by seeing the bright side of every occasion, even the ones that seem unfortunate. Let’s say a family member stands you up for your holiday meal. That’s bad, right? Actually, it means fewer people, which means more intimate conversation today and more turkey sandwiches tomorrow.
Enjoying your holiday right now, without reference to the past or future, doesn’t make for such a nice carol. If you’re still stuck on Christmases past, try a different tune: “Let It Snow! Let It Snow! Let It Snow!” First recorded in 1945, it’s an anthem to holiday mindfulness: “Oh, the weather outside is frightful / But the fire is so delightful / Since we've no place to go / Let it snow, let it snow, let it snow!”
You can construct a past or future if you want, but you really have no place to go but the present. So just enjoy the fire and pretend every year is the first year—because in a way, it is.