Fancy a shot of artisanal vodka for breakfast? How about a new seasonal lip-gloss to shake up your look every day this December? Or perhaps you’d prefer a daily cube of advent cheese, because nothing says “Christmas is coming” like the whiff of camembert.
Advent calendars have reached such a peak of obscene, decadent over-indulgence that, for the first time, I give credence to those who call our era that of “late” capitalism. Around the country, people will be waking up on December 1st and celebrating the beginning of advent with micro-gifts as varied as craft beer, lego figures, room fragrance kits, and sex toys.
What an age we live in. Our culture has subverted and corrupted a festival – Advent – about patient waiting and anticipation. It’s turned it into one that involves indulging ourselves into a coma of mindless consumption the moment we lift our heads from the pillow.
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I’m not religious. I no more believe in the story of Jesus’ birth in a stable than I believe the plotline of last year’s Netflix seasonal hit, A Christmas Prince. But Advent, like so many religious traditions, is onto something. It has endured through centuries because it is connected to something important in the human condition. And I don’t mean our innate desire to own 24 emoji stress toys.
Advent – like Ramadan, Lent, and other religious festivals that involve waiting and endurance – trains us to suck the marrow out of experiences. Advent stretches a single moment of joy (in this case, the knowledge of a saviour’s birth) into almost a full month of anticipation and wonder.
Attentional theories of happiness confirm this is precisely the best way to boost wellbeing. In short, the science says a key component of how happy you feel is how much of your day you spend thinking about the stuff that makes you happy, rather than about the stresses and inconveniences that dog you. Depression robs us of joy in part because it makes it so hard to make joy last, as your brain sucks you into a cycle of dwelling on the negatives.
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One of the best ways to boost your mental health, and even fight some kinds of mental illness, is to keep a gratitude diary. Just before bed, you note down the three things for which you’re most grateful in the day. This doesn’t increase the volume of good things that happen to you; it works because it increases the amount of time you spend thinking about them.
The science also tells us that experiences bring more lasting happiness than belongings. That’s because you quickly habituate yourself to new things, and stop noticing them. Experiences can last forever in our memories, unlike those empty lip gloss containers which go out with the rubbish in January.
And finally, the science of happiness tells us that whatever you buy, the best way to maximise the joy it gives you is to pay in advance. Once you’ve paid the bill, you can spend the time waiting for the delivery, or the holiday, or the movie, in sweet anticipation.
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That’s why Advent was traditionally celebrated – and still is in so many churches – with the lighting of a candle every day. Taking a pause in the day to stand in simple contemplation of a flame is surely the best way to absorb the full experience of waiting for Christ’s birth. An advent calendar with pictures is similar, telling the nativity story in slow stages, from the donkey to the gifts of the kings. You can’t binge-watch the box set, you have to wait – you have to follow the story single image by single image.
Giving yourself a tiny present every morning is the opposite of what Advent is for. It doesn’t train your patience, it weakens it. It doesn’t help you find the last drop of joy in the bottle of flavoured prosecco, it teaches you not to care, because another one’s on its way in a few hours.
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So resist the hefty advent calendars this year and do something good for your mental health instead. Religious or not, Christian or not, you will be more happy if you use these 24 days to train your mind to find the glory in anticipation. Light an Advent candle at dusk. Meditate at lunchtime. Burn incense and simply breathe for an hour.
If you’re really brave, complete your Christmas shopping on November 30 and try buying nothing but food for the whole month. If you haven’t made a Christmas cake – make it, and cure it with a single drop of tea or whisky every day. If like me you think better when you’re active, try running every day, whatever the weather – and you’ll savour the rest of Christmas day more than you imagine.
Don’t find your pleasure in fleeting, throwable indulgence. Find it in waiting for the joy to grow. Make this your tantric Christmas.