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#10: The True Meaning of the Holiday Spirit

#10: The True Meaning of the Holiday Spirit

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Hello friends and lovers and random people on my email list. Welcome to a special holiday edition of the Mindfuck Monday Newsletter, the only weekly newsletter that will lie and pretend to like your shitty haircut. Every week, I hit you with three interesting ideas about life and the world. This week, we’re talking about the meaning of the holidays, optimism and contrarianism, and what I’m grateful for.

Let’s dive right in.

1. Why the holidays are holidays – When I was young, I was your typical obnoxious adolescent who thought the holidays were lame. Presents were lame. Dinner with the family was lame. Candy and decorations were lame. If you need me, Mom, I’ll be the mopey kid with eyeliner and one too many black lights in his room.
I was never a traditionalist. In fact, I’ve always been anti-traditionalist. I thought traditions were pointlessly limiting and stupid. And holidays always struck me as completely arbitrary traditions.

Then I grew up a bit and chilled out. But still didn’t get the whole holiday thing.
Later, when I was older and started traveling around the world and experiencing other cultures, I found it interesting how every culture had incredibly similar holiday experiences. Gift exchanges. Family gatherings. Large meals. Contemplation of death and gratitude for life. Mashed potatoes.

Then you start reading history and you discover that most holidays originated as religious practices. These practices were developed because they were good for the small, burgeoning human societies. People realized, “Oh, hey, if we occasionally make everybody sit down and shut up to think about what they’re grateful for, we see less bad things happen. And, if we encourage people to give gifts to one another, they act less like shitheads the rest of the year.”

Thus, the holidays were born.

One of the points I made in my last book that got some people’s panties all bunched up in knots is that religion was the original self-help seminar. Or, put another way, the self-help seminars are religion minus the mythology. We’ve always needed socially organized practices that keep us mentally sane and happy. These practices haven’t changed because human nature hasn’t changed. It’s the stories around them that change. But these practices continue to make us a little bit less selfish, a little bit more compassionate, a little bit more thoughtful, thousands of years later.

So, if you are part of half of the planet that is sitting down this week with your family and doing the same damn thing you’ve done every December for your entire life, just remember: this isn’t just some arbitrary thing. These are fundamental social practices that make humanity better and have for thousands of years. Be grateful for that. And be grateful for the people in your life. And pass the goddamn mashed potatoes.

2. A strange end-of-decade optimism – This decade only has a couple weeks left. When I look back on the 2010s, I realize that I spent much of it being quite pessimistic about the state of the world. Ten years ago, we were still riding high on the fumes of the social media revolution, believing that by being connected, we would change the world. There were massive political shifts that seemed to support this belief. There was a burgeoning movement of millennial entrepreneurs who believed themselves limitless. Silicon Valley startups didn’t seem like a bunch of con artists yet. Things seemed to be good.

But me, I was pessimistic. I spent much of this time railing about cognitive biases and how much we all sucked without realizing it. I railed against much of our optimism, saying that just because the technology has changed, doesn’t mean human nature has. And human nature always finds ways to make things awful. I reminded people of this constantly. I was a real hit at parties.

Jump ahead seven years and everyone’s miserable, hates each other, and thinks the world is going to hell in a Matryoshka doll. And yet, I find myself strangely optimistic—dare I say, hopeful—this past year.

Because those same cognitive biases that prevented us from smelling the festering turd also known as life in the early part of the decade, seem to be the same cognitive biases preventing us from seeing its thin golden crust today. The world’s systems have bent but not broken. Social media isn’t the psychological bogeyman we made it out to be. The issue is more likely the constant deluge of low-quality information 24/7, as well as our addiction to it. This addiction to poor information causes us to amplify problems in our minds, to see them as something uniquely disastrous in this historical moment, when, if you really look at it, pretty much nothing we’re dealing with today is new or unique.

In the film Glengarry Glen Ross, Al Pacino’s character says something like, “I learned early in life that when the crowd goes one way, I turn and walk in the other.” Contrarianism. It’s the ultimate cynical strategy. It says, “well, assuming most people are idiots, I should do the opposite of what most people do.” Maybe I’m contrarian. Or maybe I’m just ahead of the curve. And if people are curious, I can do a long article in the new year arguing for optimism in the coming decade.

3. What I’m grateful for: you (and this) – One of the reasons I believe it’s unwarranted to be overly pessimistic at the moment is that most information sources right now—because they’re driven so much by clickbait and advertising money—are extremely poor at giving context. They are optimized for emotional impact, regardless of what that emotion is. And they are unconcerned with placing what the world is experiencing today in the context of history, human nature, economics, and so on.

I experienced this firsthand this year when I toured to promote Everything is F*cked: A Book About Hope. Much of the media I did was unconcerned with the context of my work. They just wanted me to tell them that the kids are all fucked. Or that democracy is over. Or the fact that Trump prefers his steak cooked well done is absolutely unforgivable. They wanted the 10-word soundbyte rather than the discussion. It was frustrating.

And that’s why, since coming off the book tour, I’ve redoubled my focus on my website and this email list. I realized that I had started taking this for granted: the ability to immediately reach my readers without any intermediary. The opportunity to set the context myself. And the blessing of being notified by about a dozen people every day when I’m wrong. It’s a beautiful thing. And for that, I’m grateful. Thank you.

Now, seriously, give me the mashed potatoes or shit is going to get ugly.