America's Settling Point
Even as autumn is still ushering the summer offstage and introducing the first acts of winter, here in the States we’re busy ushering out costumes and pumpkins and introducing the first phase of holiday ads, décor, and specials. The season of crunching leaves underfoot, internal debates over candy, and digging sweaters out of the closet is again being cut short by the ever-expanding season of buying and selling pine trees, gift-giving, and bearded men in red suits.
Local stores are almost disorienting during these final few months of the year. It’s as if every ordering department in the country gets its wires crossed once November hits. Leftover costumes and candy sit side by side with glitter covered ornaments and stockings in an array of colors. And even as the candies and costumes are replaced with turkey-shaped salt shakers, cornucopias, and leaf-embossed serving platters, Christmas trees are being strategically placed in large, center-aisles. Glistening garland and twinkling lights start climbing local trees and light posts a few days earlier each year, and Christmas ads are showing up in some mailboxes before Halloween has even passed.
Christmas, it seems, is growing fatter by slowly and steadily consuming the holidays that come before it. And it’s only one big bite away from swallowing Thanksgiving whole.
Each year, retailers are opening their doors a little bit earlier for the ominously named Black Friday to begin. What has now been officially dubbed a ‘shopping holiday’ is becoming increasingly indistinguishable from the ‘day of thanks’ that precedes it.
The irony here is far too great to be ignored.
It’s all about the money describes the basics of American society so well that the phrase itself has become cliché. And the money certainly plays its part in Thanksgiving’s disappearing act. After all, Christmas is the biggest money-making holiday of the year, complete with demands in almost every possible retail space. It’s a rare chance for everyone to grab a piece of the profit pie.
Retailers respond to this promise of profit by turning up the volume on their marketing and working hard to incite a sort of excitement-bordering-on-anxiety about Christmas shopping that pressures people into starting as early as possible – a gimmick that increases sales, since shopping early means buying more by the time the season is done.
It’s abundantly clear that, at least for the retailers, the expansion of the Christmas season really is all about the money. For the shoppers, however, it seems that it might be about something else entirely.
Each year masses of people join in the Black Friday madness – but, interestingly, the vast majority later report that the sales and products weren’t quite what they were cracked up to be. In fact, the sales are often just as good a few weeks later as they are on what would have been Thanksgiving evening – and once the frenzy has died down, most people readily acknowledge this. So it’s not really about the money at all.
What is it, then, that’s driving Americans to make that mad rush from their turkey dinners to their local stores? And why do so many people work themselves into such a frenzy that the morning after is like America’s walk of shame?
Having worked as a retail manager for fifteen years before writing full-time, I had the opportunity to watch the madness from the inside out. Rather than getting caught up in the frenzy, my job was to assess it. And what I always noted was that people weren’t driven as much by the sales as by the frenzy – specifically the frenzy to beat someone else to the punch. It was all about the competition and the obtaining and less about the cost and the quality - and this always got me thinking about something called the settling point hypothesis.
The settling point hypothesis, in short, states that our bodies are always working to maintain whatever weight we’re used to – our metabolism, hunger pangs, and energy levels shift in response to our behavior in an attempt to keep things as close to our ‘own kind of normal’ as possible. This hypothesis explains why a crash diet always leads to greater cravings that often lands us back at the same weight plus a few pounds.
It can’t be a coincidence that the one day of the year devoted to giving thanks and focusing on intangible things like family, community, and love is immediately followed by a day devoted to its polar opposite – desire, competition, and anxiety. Perhaps this is America’s mental and emotional equivalent of the settling point hypothesis in action.
I think it’s not just possible but probable. Our society is practically built on the glorification of competition and the veneration of increase in any form. More money. More stuff. More gold, glam, and glory. And when you look at it this way, it’s no surprise that the holiday devoted to being grateful for what we have is slowly being phased out and replaced by one where we focus on what we can get.
Fortunately, just like we can reset the balancing point in our bodies, we can do that in our nation as well; and perhaps in the process we can save what’s left of our Thanksgiving holiday before it disappears completely.
Reaching a healthy balance doesn’t come from dieting and gorging but from slowly incorporating healthier choices into our everyday lives. One healthy choice at a time. We can opt for a fruit or vegetable instead of a less wholesome snack once a day. And we can take a moment to appreciate what we have rather than thinking about getting what we want once a day too. Such a commitment would slowly change our collective settling point and help us move in the direction of mental and emotional wellness without the need for binge shopping and competition the day after.
The benefit of such a transition would be immense. In an ironic turn, the very cravings that work against us when we’re making unhealthy choices turn into allies that work for us when we get into the habit of making healthier ones. When we begin to rebalance desire with gratitude, we open ourselves up to enjoy the less quantifiable and intangible things in our lives – things like love, family, community, and happiness. The same kinds of things that would be better found around the Thanksgiving Day table than in line at our local stores.
© 2016 Cristen Rodgers