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Forget Joy to the World. What about Merry Misery to You?

Sometimes I think the world would be better off if we sent each other more realistic sentiments this time of year. Forget Joy to the World. What about Merry Misery to You and Yours! Happy Loneliness with Your Eggnog! At least, that way, the expectation level would be set.

But no. That's not the way we humans work, especially not at Christmas. We want to be happy. And then the big question becomes, should we engineer that happiness? Should happiness be an effort? Is happiness authentic if it's manufactured? Or is that simply fake frivolity, the kind that can make you even more unhappy?

We like to think of happiness as spontaneous. But is there something wrong with insisting on it? You tell your children to smile for the obligatory photograph of the family. You stick that goofy paper crown on your head when you feel less than princely. You drag your grumpy child to a family gathering with a pasted-on smile that says, "We're going to make this a fun family outing no matter what!"

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I grew up in the school of Happy Memory Creation. My peeps are WASPs - in other words, adept at making nice. The mantra? If you can't say something nice, don't say anything at all. We didn't let it all hang out. We polished our emotional veneer.

I sometimes feel envious of families who don't care about maintaining one. An Italian friend of mine is often in a temporary feud of one sort or another with her family members. "Oh, I'm a Roman candle!" she will exclaim with a laugh. "There's no holding me back when I'm set off." Arguably, families who freely express themselves emotionally are transparent, something that's valued in this WikiLeaky age. It's healthy and real, right?

But making nice is not about blanket repression (that r-word Freudian thing). It's more about determination, I think, the desire to make events happy; to leave everyone with a memory of harmonious togetherness. One of my friends talks about "delivering" a happy Christmas to her two children. It's a parental duty.

When I was a teenager, this sort of determined happiness drove me crazy. I found the whole thing inauthentic and troublesome, imagining that it took courage to say what you really felt, to get down and dirty about the messy business of being a family - in our case a large one of five children.

But now I treasure those times. They were happy because my mother and father made the effort. Sure, I would roll my eyes heavenward over having to play charades or some other parlour game I deemed stupid. My father would cajole me into it and tease me sometimes about my glumness.

But eventually, against my will, I would crack a smile and succumb to the mood in the room.

Happiness is contagious, we now know. Using data from the Framingham Heart Study, an ongoing collection of social and medical information since 1948 of thousands of people in Framingham, Mass., researchers concluded that an immediate social contact increased a person's chances of becoming happy by 15 per cent. (Social contacts who were more removed - say, the friend of a friend of a friend - had a diminishing effect. But they can still infect you with a happiness bug - if they have it, that is. Sadness also spreads, the researchers noted, but less efficiently.)

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Viral joy wasn't all that was in play during those family gatherings I remember. The old "fake it until you feel it" exhortation was working its magic, too. Not that I was aware of that as a teenager. It was a cognitive therapist who wisely advised this mood trick when I was reeling from low self-esteem after my divorce.

At the end of the day, all we have is our memories. Like many people, I have experienced holidays that were seamlessly happy and some that had dark gaping holes. Some things, like the crushing disappointment of divorce, the actions of an ex, a death in the family, cannot easily be covered over with sweet emotional frosting.

But as a parent, I have always wanted to mark the happy times in an effort to store them in the memory bank, especially when they were fleeting or had poked up unexpectedly in a difficult year. My three sons and I even developed a tradition to do that.

It started when they were small and we were away on a holiday in the sun. I was reading E. B. White's Stuart Little to them in a hammock. "Remember this when we're back home," I told them, pointing out the way the palm tree looked against the blue sky, the way the sun felt, and the breeze, the name of the book we were reading. "This is memory No. 1."

It worked. I could ask them months later - and now almost 20 years later - what that memory is, and they can recall it immediately. Over the years, we have created new ones - simple things, such as sitting by a fire as the snow falls gently into the street. Each time, we will describe its details as a way to write it indelibly into our minds.

And it remains there, a still shot of happiness and calm amid the rolling, complicated film of life.

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About the Author
Life columnist

Sarah Hampson is an award-winning journalist whose work started appearing in The Globe and Mail in 1998, when she was invited to write a column. Since 1993, when she began her career in journalism, she had been writing for all of Canada's major magazines, including Toronto Life, Saturday Night (now defunct), Chatelaine, Report on Business and Canadian Art, among others. More

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