In Russia, it’s ok to be miserable on Christmas

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A native Muscovite, aspiring writer, and entrepreneur living in New York reflects on the different attitudes to negative emotions and ‘holiday blues’ in Russian and American cultures.

I am hanging out with a friend in a tiny atmospheric cafe in the Village. Christmas is almost here - “tis the season to be jolly” - but my friend is depressed.

She is a typical New Yorker with a strong personality, three jobs, loads of ambitions, and a sharp mind slightly blurred by sleep deprivation. A true American, she also has a big dream that she believes will be a reality as soon as she pays off her student loans… which are huge, by the way.

“Literally, I can’t get out of bed; it’s that bad,” she said. “I’m afraid I’ll have to go on medication, even my boyfriend said pills are good for me. When I’m not using my meds, I sound negative. The worst part is that I just don’t understand why this is happening.”

The pressure to succeed in the U.S., especially in New York, is huge and, on top of that, you have the pressure that comes from having to show that you’re always positive: Excited. Happy. Smiley. Enthusiastic.And, if you’re not, then something must be wrong with you.

It’s not enough just to work hard, dealing with the high levels of stress that the city can bring. No, really?!

The ‘contagious negativity’

In American culture, you’re not allowed to share your depressive thoughts. People will give you looks if you spread your negativity. And Americans believe it’s contagious.

You’re welcome to get professional help, therapy or put yourself on medication. Anything is fine in order to appear enthusiastic and not to distract others.

To be fair, Americans sincerely care and try to be friendly. You might get some enthusiastic cheering, such as “you are amazing, you’ll make it,” or someone will give you the phone number of a “therapist who really helped my aunt’s ex boyfriend.”

But I prefer to do it the Russian way. “You’ve got three jobs, woman, and no time for yourself,” I tell my friend. “No wonder you’re depressed. Chill out.”

Is being miserable together therapy in Russia?

Where I grew up it was fine to be miserable. Everybody, including harsh looking factory workers and sophisticated intellectuals, spent hours drinking vodka or tea with their friends, complaining.

And it’s not because Russians are one hell of an unhappy nation. To us, a fake smile is fake, and suppressed sadness camouflaged as “enthusiasm,” or “holiday cheer,” is dangerous.

In Russia, people believe that you’re allowed to be unhappy. We even have loads of sayings and proverbs to support this point. For example, “Everybody has their own problems: somebody’s got dry bread, others have small diamonds” (У всех свои проблемы: у одних хлеб черствый, у других бриллианты мелкие).

If you’re sad on holidays, in Russia you know what’s wrong with you. Nothing is. You just complain to your friends and, possibly even cry. Surprisingly, next morning you feel better.

Dead cow rule

Russians have gone so far in their acceptance of misery that they even have a saying: “It’s not a pity that my cow is dead; it’s a pity that my neighbor’s cow is alive.”

This means that if you don’t have a reason to be miserable, then you better find one. Otherwise, people will hate you and envy you. And that’s exactly what’s happening on holidays, with social media presenting perfect cheery couples in matching piggies, posting “Merry Christmas and Happy New Year from our perfect and loving family.”

In Russia, you should invent a reason to be depressed just to make yourself look better in the eyes of your less fortunate and, therefore, more ‘interesting’ friends.

And when you are done complaining you can go home and live your miserable life, in your miserable apartment, with your miserable family and naughty, unsuccessful kids who, by the way, are getting straight A’s. Because everybody, even people with a lot of small diamonds, can sometimes catch the ‘holiday blues’. And it’s just fine.

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