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The joy of putting up lights
On unhinged sports-obsessed parents, Christmas lights that go too far, and society's need to promote an enlightened sense of pleasure in doing things more than having things
The winter holiday season brings out strange behaviors in some people. For many, it's a time to do some light decorating both inside and outside the home. For others, though, it's either time for radical escalation or for displays of passive aggression.
■ Everyone is entitled to the right to decide freely whether to celebrate or decorate or abstain entirely. But it's wise to keep in mind that life really is too short to waste on activities that aren't cultivated to bring about some kind of pleasure, either now or in the future. Other purposes really aren't worth the energy nor the scarce time any one of us has in life.
■ The rule isn't just applicable to holiday decorating -- it applies equally to lots of other endeavors, from taking part in sports to using social media to going to work. Parents who come unhinged at youth sporting events, people who feel obligated by work or by other compulsion to stay glued to Facebook or Instagram, and those who are eager to leave their vocations all need to heed the advice.
■ Society does need to encourage individuals to take an enlightened view of what brings pleasure, of course. It's not always a matter of what feels good, like a sugar rush. Pleasure shouldn't always be just a momentary visceral excitement.
■ Humans are endowed with incredibly powerful brains, and we need to be trained to use those brains to appreciate a worthy sense of joy. Sometimes that comes from entering a state of "flow", as first described by the psychologist Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi. Sometimes it derives from building towards a satisfying goal. Sometimes it comes from cultivating a mindful sense of gratitude. Sometimes it's the result of appreciating one's own triumph over adversity -- or that of someone else.
■ Altogether, though, it's much too easy to default to chasing material satisfaction -- emphasizing "stuff" too much or, sometimes, too little. Just as there are those who are never satisfied except by buying things to impress others, there are those who reject even basic creature comforts out of inexplicable obsessions with asceticism, whether for religious reasons or to prove their unnecessary physical self-discipline.
■ Putting too much emphasis on material stuff (too much or too little) keeps people from cultivating that necessary and enlightened sense of pleasure in experience. It takes practice to really refine that sense, and nobody should ever expect to achieve a perfect end state of it. But figuring out how better to fill the all-too-brief span of life with an enlightened sense of joy seems like a far better use of time than putting up holiday decorations out of spite or arguing with others over ephemera.