I Don’t Wish You a Perfect Holiday. Here’s Why.

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Hear that ringing? It’s the jingle jangle of holiday headaches. Ah, just listen to it all, the cacophony of nervous systems lit up like Christmas trees. Now, let’s figure out how to calm it all the F down.

The best decision I’ve made so far in this holiday season is one I try to make every year, and it may be one you want to give a try: I let myself off the hook.

From what? From all the “shoulds” that sound good on paper but don’t always happen: Like…I should make cookies (or flavored oils or home-brewed beer) to give to people; plan some perfect quaint luncheon and have friends over on a Sunday (when I’d really rather sit around in my underwear and fold laundry and watch last night’s SNL); buy the perfect gifts, at a discount, and wrap them flawlessly; decorate more or better than I usually do (which is not saying much); to act or be any different during the holidays than I might normally be.

It’s Christmas, folks. Expectations run high. Standards run high. Credit card bills run high. As do tensions. And we tend to think, consciously or un, that this requires something more from us–and in many ways, of course it does! And it can be fun! But that doesn’t mean you have to run yourself ragged doing it.

So one of the best ways I know of to enjoy the holidays is to count on the fact that something, somehow, may go wrong. I’m not a pessimist. I’m what author Tal Ben-Shahar, Ph.D., calls an optimalist.

Why Perfect Is Trouble

I recently interviewed Ben-Shahar, a positive psychologist and author of the new book Being Happy, on my daily radio show “Whole Living” on Martha radio / Sirius XM 110 (10a ET, 7a PT). He taught the most popular class at Harvard on happiness–and debunks this irritatingly persistent idea that to truly be happy, you should be happy ALL THE TIME. That nothing should be able to get you down.

And while he wasn’t speaking about holidays in particular, I am. Because this is the time when we feel even more pressure to be happy. We also often think if our holidays were just a little more perfect, we’d be happier than we are now, or would be happier later.

(Want proof that that isn’t true? Please reference your past 25 holidays.)

But here’s what drove it home for me: Ben-Shahar says that perfectionists are among the most unhappy people in the world. Why? Because they do not accept failure. Or reality. Or anything, well, less than perfect. This, he says, becomes an obstacle to living healthy. “We either learn to fail or fail to learn,” he writes.

So beware the perfectionist tendency, masquerading as optimism in a Santa hat. Perfectionism and optimism are NOT the same things, as Ben-Shahar says.

A Distasteful Analogy to Illustrate The Difference Between Perfectionists & Optimalists

Perfectionists are rigid and unaccommodating in philosophy and practice. Optimalists, on the other hand, make the best of whatever comes their way–good, bad, ugly. They’re also, says Ben-Shahar, far more likely to be and feel happy.

Why? Not only are they more flexible and able to shift their expectations, but perfections are, to put it bluntly, emotionally constipated. Since they’re so busy barring the path of negative emotions, they don’t let good ones through either.

Optimalists, on the other hand, don’t resist this or that emotion. They digest the whole spectrum of emotions, and let it all move through them, making them less likely to strain or suffer. OK, that’s enough.