The tyranny of... holidays?

Happy Mother’s Day to all the moms out there.

Sending my appreciation to all of you – hope that you had a wonderful Sunday.

Which brings us to today’s topic: holidays.

Every time a holiday comes around, my hamster-wheel of a brain kicks into overdrive and I can’t stop thinking about the psychology of these strange, jubilant days.

The thing that’s always struck me about holidays is the coercion involved. You may laugh and think that I’m being dramatic, but think about it. What is a holiday? It’s a mandatory celebration.

If you had other plans today, you had to cancel them to make sure that you went home and spent time with your mom (or at least had a good, long phone call or Facetime chat with her). You had to buy her flowers (or another present) and take her out to a nice meal.

I did all these things—and I had a great time. But think about how lame my gesture was. I shouldn’t be applauded for doing what’s expected of me and following socially-enforced etiquette.

If I didn’t do all these things, I would have been roasted by my friends (and guilted by my parents).

Should I really be applauded for doing something with a psychological pistol to my head?

Which brings us to a fascinating topic: Autonomy.

Decades of psych research has shown how important the feeling of autonomy (also called “self determination” by fancy-pants psychologists) is to human flourishing. We will go to extreme lengths to feel in control of our lives, and will rebel and drag our feet when we feel it’s being threatened. I’m sure you’ve noticed this before. You tell someone to do something, and they do the most half-baked version of your request (if they do it at all). Why is this?

It’s because they’re doing everything they can to re-assert their autonomy. They’ll take their pretty time, they’ll do only part of what you asked—all so that they can retake some control over the situation.

“See--I can do what I want!”

I think this is one of the reasons why holiday gestures are often so stale and uninspired. We all, one some level, feel coerced to take place in the day’s festivities, so we do something. But, in order to reaffirm our autonomy, don’t always dive into the festivities head first.

Which is why I think that we should put together a task force to re-imagine holidays. Something’s gotta change.

Here’s a quick idea for how we can reinvigorate these traditions:

What if your family got to vote on the holidays you want to celebrate each year? You could all get together over a meal and fill out your (anonymous) ballots, or you could all have a discussion about which things you want to celebrate in the coming year. To force real thinking, we’d need to put a cap on the number your family could choose. Maybe 12. Maybe 6.

What would this do?

It would push you to think long and hard about which things are really important to you, and thus worthy of celebration.

It would also give you the sense of control and autonomy that the holidays previously stole. Here you are, actively choosing to celebrate each occasion. They're not being pushed upon you; you’re actually picking them.

Anyone want to try this out? Let's start a new tradition.

Jason Hreha