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Kathy Whelan

Posted on October 12, 2022

Does it bother you that holiday decorations appear in stores right after Labor Day? I don’t know about you, but I’d rather ease into fall without being driven by thoughts of holidays that are still months away. I dislike feeling that if I don’t buy now, I’ll be late. As this retail rush gets earlier and earlier, I find it more and more annoying. But this year I’ve realized it isn’t just annoying. I believe it can be stressful and potentially unhealthy, too.

As I thought about this, I found a digital magazine article entitled “Americans Are Some of the Most Stressed-Out People in the World.” No sooner had I begun reading than a pop-up ad appeared, urging me not to miss out on a limited-time subscription offer. Although I had no interest in subscribing, my attention was diverted to the ad. And this kind of thing happens to us repeatedly throughout the day. Pop-ups are relatively small nuisances, but they are part of a bigger problem, one I think the holiday retail rush is part of.

The problem begins with mind wandering, our brain’s tendency to stray from what we are experiencing in the present moment. In 2010, a pair of Harvard psychologists studied this phenomenon and came to the startling conclusion that people spend 46.9% of their waking hours thinking about something other than what they’re doing. These psychologists concluded that this is our default state of mind.

Mind wandering helped us survive as a primitive species. We needed it to learn from the past and imagine the future so we could predict whether a stranger was more likely to be friend or foe and plan for our next meal. We wouldn’t have survived without these basic thinking skills. Today we find it helpful to envision the future in long-range planning for finances, careers, vacations, and retirement. Leaving the present to engage in creative thinking, reflection or introspection can be valuable too, and sometimes we just need a mindless break from the task at hand.

All too often, though, we overuse this mental time traveling to our detriment. We ruminate about past events without learning from them and worry excessively about things that may or may not happen in the future. And this is not making us happier. In fact, those two psychologists came to another conclusion: “A wandering mind is an unhappy mind.” And I expect this has only gotten worse since 2010.

When we allow sponsors of pop-up ads, retailers and others to shift our attention from our priorities and timetables to theirs, we stop focusing on what’s important to us right now. I like to make careful choices when I shop for groceries. If I don’t do that because a store display gets my mind spinning about Christmas, I might come home with more than a bunch of bruised apples. I’ll also bring home stress to add to what I have already accumulated that day. Doing this often enough can cause stress to become chronic, which is unhealthy in numerous ways.

So what can we do? Noticing our distraction, we can slow down, pause, and see where our attention has gone. Taking a few slow, deep breaths, we can gently and without judgment (remember, mind wandering is normal) pull ourselves back to the present, where we can focus on what’s important to us right here and now. It’s a way of setting a boundary, not letting in what we don’t want when we don’t want it, and responding thoughtfully to distractions rather than reacting automatically.

The retail rush may be problematic in another way, too. When our preparations become a months-long project, we risk making the holidays something that perhaps they cannot and should not be. After devoting much time, energy and money to this effort, how will we feel when guests fail to comment on our Christmas-themed toilet paper? Here I’m reminded of the hilarious 1989 comedy National Lampoon’s Christmas Vacation where Chevy Chase’s character, Clark Griswold, goes over the top to create, as his wife ruefully observes, a Christmas that can’t live up to his expectations. Maybe, as this fictional family learned, simpler is better.

In the end, it’s a personal matter. Some may find this holiday retail rush positive and exhilarating, and I hope they enjoy it because it seems to be here to stay. As for me and others who endure it unwillingly, we’ll be taking a lot of those slow, deep breaths in the months to come.

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