Too much Christmas music can damage your mental health

Did you know? Looped music has been used a means of torture.

  • It's that time of year again, when we start hearing Christmas music at every store we go to.
  • Studies show that hearing Christmas songs too many times increases stress.
  • Maybe wait a few weeks before you start playing "Frosty The Snowman" everywhere you go, if you value your sanity.

We've all heard it, the endless stream of Christmas music on the radio, in the mall, and on street corners that starts ever earlier and doesn't end until December 26th. Some love it, others loathe it, but escape is all but impossible either way. Rarely do we ask though, why do we play as much Christmas music as we do? After all, department stores rarely loop songs for other holidays in the same way as they do for Christmas.

There is both method and madness here, but mostly madness.

Hearing too much Christmas music is officially bad for you. The constant barrage of music that starts in November and intensifies until Christmas starts out making people happy, but slowly becomes more and more grating to people as they hear the same songs for the umpteenth time. After a certain point, hearing the music stresses people out. It is particularly bad for people working in sales, who have to learn to tune the music out if they want to function.

The phenomenon behind this is called the "mere exposure" effect. It causes us to like things that are familiar to us, with more frequent interactions with something leading us to have a better opinion of it. It's kind of like Stockholm Syndrome that way, and advertisers often take advantage of it. However, there is a point of over-saturation that causes us to start disliking the thing we're constantly interacting with.

Psychologist Linda Blair explains how festive music can slowly start to stress us out. "People working in the shops [have to tune out] Christmas music, because if they don't, it really does stop you from being able to focus on anything else... You're simply spending all of your energy trying not to hear what you're hearing," she told SkyNews.

If that sounds like torture, you won't be surprised to know that looped music has been used in that capacity before.

Why would the department stores torture people like this then?

For the money of course! Studies show that customers will spend more time in a store that pipes in Christmas music than one that does not during the holidays. The effect is enhanced when the stores also pump in Christmas scents like peppermint or cinnamon. The stores have every reason to do this, as many customers are now looking to delay their purchases until the last minute. With more shoppers turning to online stores over brick and mortar ones, it makes sense to use anything that will keep the people who do go into the store there longer.

What can salespeople do to lower their stress levels?

Avoid the music, though given that Christmas songs will be played non-stop during the ever-lengthening holiday season, this is all but impossible. The best you can do is to not add to the barrage unnecessarily.

Christmas music can begin as a nostalgic reminder of days gone by and end up as an endless, droning torture. While there might be some financial benefit for stores to playing the music as much as they do, it comes at a cost to the sanity of the people who have to hear it endlessly. So maybe let the turkey cool before you start playing Christmas music everywhere you go.

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Why Epicurean ideas suit the challenges of modern secular life

Sure, Epicureans focused on seeking pleasure – but they also did so much more.

Antonio Masiello/Getty Images
Culture & Religion

'The pursuit of Happiness' is a famous phrase in a famous document, the United States Declaration of Independence (1776). But few know that its author was inspired by an ancient Greek philosopher, Epicurus. Thomas Jefferson considered himself an Epicurean. He probably found the phrase in John Locke, who, like Thomas Hobbes, David Hume and Adam Smith, had also been influenced by Epicurus.

Nowadays, educated English-speaking urbanites might call you an epicure if you complain to a waiter about over-salted soup, and stoical if you don't. In the popular mind, an epicure fine-tunes pleasure, consuming beautifully, while a stoic lives a life of virtue, pleasure sublimated for good. But this doesn't do justice to Epicurus, who came closest of all the ancient philosophers to understanding the challenges of modern secular life.

Epicureanism competed with Stoicism to dominate Greek and Roman culture. Born in 341 BCE, only six years after Plato's death, Epicurus came of age at a good time to achieve influence. He was 18 when Alexander the Great died at the tail end of classical Greece – identified through its collection of independent city-states – and the emergence of the dynastic rule that spread across the Persian Empire. Zeno, who founded Stoicism in Cyprus and later taught it in Athens, lived during the same period. Later, the Roman Stoic Seneca both critiqued Epicurus and quoted him favourably.

Today, these two great contesting philosophies of ancient times have been reduced to attitudes about comfort and pleasure – will you send back the soup or not? That very misunderstanding tells me that Epicurean ideas won, hands down, though bowdlerised, without the full logic of the philosophy. Epicureans were concerned with how people felt. The Stoics focused on a hierarchy of value. If the Stoics had won, stoical would now mean noble and an epicure would be trivial.

Epicureans did focus on seeking pleasure – but they did so much more. They talked as much about reducing pain – and even more about being rational. They were interested in intelligent living, an idea that has evolved in our day to mean knowledgeable consumption. But equating knowing what will make you happiest with knowing the best wine means Epicurus is misunderstood.

The rationality he wedded to democracy relied on science. We now know Epicurus mainly through a poem, De rerum natura, or 'On the Nature of Things', a 7,400 line exposition by the Roman philosopher Lucretius, who lived c250 years after Epicurus. The poem was circulated only among a small number of people of letters until it was said to be rediscovered in the 15th century, when it radically challenged Christianity.

Its principles read as astonishingly modern, down to the physics. In six books, Lucretius states that everything is made of invisible particles, space and time are infinite, nature is an endless experiment, human society began as a battle to survive, there is no afterlife, religions are cruel delusions, and the universe has no clear purpose. The world is material – with a smidgen of free will. How should we live? Rationally, by dropping illusion. False ideas largely make us unhappy. If we minimise the pain they cause, we maximise our pleasure.

Secular moderns are so Epicurean that we might not hear this thunderclap. He didn't stress perfectionism or fine discriminations in pleasure – sending back the soup. He understood what the Buddhists call samsara, the suffering of endless craving. Pleasures are poisoned when we require that they do not end. So, for example, it is natural to enjoy sex, but sex will make you unhappy if you hope to possess your lover for all time.

Epicurus also seems uncannily modern in his attitude to parenting. Children are likely to bring at least as much pain as pleasure, he noted, so you might want to skip it. Modern couples who choose to be 'child-free' fit within the largely Epicurean culture we have today. Does it make sense to tell people to pursue their happiness and then expect them to take on decades of responsibility for other humans? Well, maybe, if you seek meaning. Our idea of meaning is something like the virtue embraced by the Stoics, who claimed it would bring you happiness.

Both the Stoics and the Epicureans understood that some good things are better than others. Thus you necessarily run into choices, and the need to forgo one good to protect or gain another. When you make those choices wisely, you'll be happier. But the Stoics think you'll be acting in line with a grand plan by a just grand designer, and the Epicureans don't.

As secular moderns, we pursue short-term happiness and achieve deeper pleasure in work well done. We seek the esteem of peers. It all makes sense in the light of science, which has documented that happiness for most of us arises from social ties – not the perfect rose garden or a closet of haute couture. Epicurus would not only appreciate the science, but was a big fan of friendship.

The Stoics and Epicureans diverge when it comes to politics. Epicurus thought politics brought only frustration. The Stoics believed that you should engage in politics as virtuously as you can. Here in the US where I live, half the country refrains from voting in non-presidential years, which seems Epicurean at heart.

Yet Epicurus was a democrat. In a garden on the outskirts of Athens, he set up a school scandalously open to women and slaves – a practice that his contemporaries saw as proof of his depravity. When Jefferson advocated education for American slaves, he might have had Epicurus in mind.

I imagine Epicurus would see far more consumption than necessary in my own American life and too little self-discipline. Above all, he wanted us to take responsibility for our choices. Here he is in his Letter to Menoeceus:

For it is not drinking bouts and continuous partying and enjoying boys and women, or consuming fish and the other dainties of an extravagant table, which produce the pleasant life, but sober calculation which searches out the reasons for every choice and avoidance and drives out the opinions which are the source of the greatest turmoil for men's souls.

Do you see the 'pursuit of happiness' as a tough research project and kick yourself when you're glum? You're Epicurean. We think of the Stoics as tougher, but they provided the comfort of faith. Accept your fate, they said. Epicurus said: It's a mess. Be smarter than the rest of them. How modern can you get?Aeon counter – do not remove

This article was originally published at Aeon and has been republished under Creative Commons. Read the original article.


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