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The time of year when people start wishing each other happy holidays can be challenging for some. At least for me, the contrast between the joyous expectation from the outside and the inner feeling of dread feels especially big and can lead to a sense of solitude. I would like to tell people in the community: “It's OK to Have Unhappy Holidays”. We’re in this together with many facing challenges like:

  • Solitude: For those who are alone, the emphasis on family and companionship during the holidays can intensify feelings of isolation.
  • Family Dynamics: The loss of parents, whether due to death or estrangement, leaves a void that the holidays can painfully magnify. Similarly, being far from family due to distance or other constraints can evoke a sense of disconnection.
  • Disruption of Routine: The holiday season often disrupts daily routines. For some, this break from normalcy can be unsettling.
  • Missing Friends: Being away from friends or unable to connect during this time can also contribute to feelings of loneliness.
  • Pressure of Expectations: The societal pressure to exchange gifts and prepare lavish meals can be overwhelming, especially for those facing financial or personal challenges.
  • Family Conflicts: Familial tensions or arguments, often swept under the rug, can resurface during gatherings, leading to discomfort and stress.
  • Grieving for Lost Loved Ones: For those mourning the loss of relatives, the festive season can be a poignant reminder of their absence.
  • Challenges of Donations: Deciding where and how much to donate can be stressful, compounded by the expectation to communicate these actions to others
  • Year-End Reflection: The end of the year prompts reflection, which can bring feelings of failure or unmet goals into sharp focus.
  • Seasonal Affectivity: The dark, cold winter days can exacerbate feelings of depression or sadness, a phenomenon known as Seasonal Affective Disorder (SAD).
  • Guilt: Guilt can arise from various sources, such as not being able to visit parents or relatives, knowing friends who are grieving or celebrating while others are suffering.
  • Global Context: Awareness of suffering and global risks can cast a shadow over the festive spirit, making it hard to feel joyous.
  • Comparative Unhappiness: Observing others seemingly happy can lead to feelings of inadequacy or the false belief that one must feel joyful.

It can already help to know that we are not alone in these struggles. And it can help to acknowledge that it’s ok to sometimes feel unhappy. But there are also some other things that might help:

  • Create New Traditions: If old traditions bring sadness, consider creating new ones that better reflect your current situation.
  • Connect Virtually: If you're far from family or friends, use technology to connect. Video calls or online games can help bridge the distance. Sometimes it just helps to reach out.
  • Reach out to Others: Sometimes friends and acquaintances are going through similar situations and would be happy for you to connect.
  • Focus on Self-Care: Engage in activities that bring you comfort and joy, whether it's reading, a hobby, or a relaxing bath.
  • Limit Social Media: If seeing others' holiday experiences makes you feel inadequate, take a break from social media.
  • Seek Support: Don't hesitate to reach out to friends, support groups, or mental health professionals for support.
  • Exercise and Outdoor Activities: Physical activity, especially outdoors, can improve mood and alleviate symptoms of SAD.
  • Practice Gratitude: Focus on what you are thankful for, even small things, which can shift your perspective.
  • Set Boundaries: It’s okay to say no to events or situations that you know will be stressful or upsetting.
  • Journaling: Writing down your thoughts and feelings can be a therapeutic way to process emotions.
  • Embrace Solitude: If you’re alone, use this time for personal growth or activities you enjoy but usually don’t have time for.
  • Plan Ahead for Difficult Dates: If certain dates are particularly hard, plan activities for those days that you know will be comforting or distracting.
  • Meditation and Relaxation Techniques: Practices like meditation, yoga, or deep breathing can help manage stress and anxiety.

Sharing your thoughts and experiences in the comments might help others that they are not the only ones struggling.

Your assessment of challenges tied to seasonal holidays seems accurate and the subsequent suggestions for mitigating unhappiness are plausibly helpful. Thank you for writing up and publishing this!

Something odd may be happening with the use of the word "OK" though. "OK" conveys adequacy or acceptability. Overall what you've written seems closer to claiming, "it can be difficult to avoid unhappiness during holidays", or, "it's common to be unhappy during holidays".

Heroes vs. Antiheroes in EA

“Name a person that inspires you” was an Icebreaker question that recently came up in a group setting. Somebody named a person in the EA community who is showcasing a lot of altruistic qualities like working long hours in their EA-aligned job while being frugal, donating a lot, being vegan etc.. I noticed that I strongly felt resistance to this and, on reflection, saw that I admire this altruistic person a lot while not being at all inspired by them at the same time. On the contrary, I feel like a failure as I can’t imagine myself ever living up to these ideals, although I would like to do so.

Before meeting any people in the EA community outside my small local group, my views of engaged people were formed by reading EA forum posts and other writings. Through these, my impression was of a community of near-heroes that were interesting but that I would never be able to be part of. Only when I went to the first EAG conference did I meet people who excelled in some part of their activities, but they also told me about where they failed and where the needs in the community were. This was the first time that I saw that I could contribute directly.

Since then, I’ve become wary of communications that highlight the importance of many altruistic actions in the community. While I see that this can be inspiring for some people, I personally have felt and still feel the pressure of expectation from this way of communicating. It is not that I disagree. It is that I start comparing myself to an ideal and contrast it with my personal daily failings in not being the perfect being I would like to be.

So while for some people, a hero with moral clarity and the willpower to work according to their principles is inspiring, for me, it’s more the antihero I can relate to. A person who is unsure, flawed, and very human but still has the ability to reflect, grow and do some good in the world. An example could be Nausea by Jean-Paul Sartre, where the protagonist experiences the meaninglessness of reality before seeing the possibilities and freedom to change. In the EA community, the 80k podcast episode on Having a successful career with anxiety, depression, and imposter syndrome would be an example, although I had more private conversations with people who shared their struggles that resonated even more.

In the opening talk of EAGxBerlin, I tried sharing my own struggles and received some positive feedback. However, I’ve been worrying if I’ve been humble bragging.

The conclusion is that what is inspiring for some could be off-putting for others and that communicating about different kinds of altruistic approaches could be helpful in reaching a broad audience of people who could decide to dedicate more of their resources to altruistic actions.

Thanks for the thoughtful text, Patrick. I agree with your sentiment of being impressed, but not inspired by people who live a life that I feel unable to achieve, and needing other, more relatable "heroes" to look up to. 
I especially like your conclusion: communication about altruistic action is hard, and we need a broad spectrum of examples to showcase the way that people engage with EA.

Commitments for Excited Altruists

I recently read the book The 15 Commitments of Conscious Leadership, which I stumbled upon in Ben Todd’s Personal annual review process in the section ”What I found most useful in designing this doc”. Written by management consultants whose endorsements include one by Dustin Moskovitz, it is a self-help book for leaders interested in personal growth. 

While the approach has the usual downside of this genre in relying on stories instead of evidence and trying to fit messy things into neat lists, I found it helpful in shaping my thinking. I also think there is an overlap with viewpoints we often see in the EA movement and not only by people in leadership positions.

The book starts with the premise that there are different states of mind in which we operate, focusing on the most common ones: “to me” and “by me”. The “to me” approach is a passive viewpoint where people blame others or themselves, are reactive, and have fixed beliefs. The book is for people who want to move to a “by me” mode of taking radical responsibility for their circumstances in life, being open to new information and feelings and living from a sense of having enough in life.

The book has vibes of Californian startup culture, focussing on complete self-sufficiency while incorporating mindfulness and communicating about feelings. At one point, they describe a meeting of an investment firm where team members vocalise their upcoming feelings nonverbally before moving on to making decisions. This may be too much woo for some. However, the approach is similar to what people in the rationalist community have been writing about. If we know ourselves better and are curious about not only our thoughts but all our experiences, then we can get better at working with this to be better at what we’re doing.

The 15 commitments the authors come up with, lists the “by me” modes to be aimed at and the “to me” states many people operate under. The EA principles of open truth-seeking and collaborative spirit are reflected in the commitments of curiositycandorgossipintegritygenius, “opposite of my story”, allieswin for all. Someone subscribing to these commitments will probably integrate well into an EA-aligned organisation.

The EA community is sometimes described as a do-ocracy, with people starting what is missing, giving the movement a somewhat decentralised approach. This mindset is reflected in the commitments of responsibility and “being the resolution”.

For altruistic-minded people, the commitment to enough will help with increasing donations, while the commitment to “play and rest” is a way to maximise energy.

Combining the commitments the book describes with an altruistic mindset speaks to me. I’m intuitively drawn more to the values described there than to live a life of altruistic actions (something I wrote about here). I have the feeling that I can become more impactful by applying my willpower to adhering to the commitments than, for example, becoming an organ donor or going vegan.

It may come down to the seeming dichotomy of excited vs. obligatory altruism, where the book offers a way of acting out of a feeling of curiosity and abundance and having a fun and holistic approach to life, instead of a moral obligation that requires maximising impact. It may be helpful in day-to-day life to have some principles to guide actions, and some of the ones from the book seem useful to me in growing while being in a mindset of exited altruism.

If you want to learn more about the book, here is a summary and here a breakdown by chapters.

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