It’s that time of year again. You can run, but you can’t hide. Valentine’s Day, or as I call it, ‘Eat-Chocolate-I-Bought-Myself-Till-I-Forget-I’m-Going-To-Die-Alone’ Day. Some of us spend the days leading up to it shopping for ‘the perfect gift for that special someone,’ while others just try and avoid the harsh stare of that heart-holding oversized teddy bear at every cash register we visit at Walgreens. Perhaps I’m being too cynical. There are upsides to Valentine’s Day, like half off chocolate on the 15th. Plus, you could probably get a sale on that huge teddy bear and use it as a fill-in-boyfriend body pillow!
But wait, Valentine’s Day makes us all happy, right? Well … not really. For a holiday that’s dedicated to love and affection, a substantial number report feeling inadequate and miserable instead — and for good reason.
According to Psychology Today, 40% of people associate Valentine’s Day with negative feelings. The holiday isn’t only met with despair by single people, it’s problematic for the coupled too. Avvo.com reports that it’s a particularly busy time for lawyers who experience a significant increase in the demand for legal advice regarding divorce. Attorneys have tapped into this unusual trend by launching an equally unusual contest that offers one lucky client a free divorce at Valentine’s Day. So much for Cupid’s arrow slaying us with eternal love and happiness.
Some are not surprised. According to Samhita Mukhopadhyay, the founder of The Occupy Valentine’s Day movement, the holiday isn’t about love; it’s a bunch of baloney. Mukhopadhyay, the author of Outdated: Why Dating is Ruining Your Love Life, explains that Valentine’s Day only perpetuates rigid and obsolete cultural norms that reinforce the idea that romance is only legitimate through consumerism or marriage. She believes it excludes many types of love such as those experienced by queer or trans people. Occupy Valentine's Day "is not about being anti-love, but instead [about] the unfair structures that force us to love a certain way.”
Why do we feel the need to celebrate Valentine's Day? Should we? Does Valentine’s Day even make us happy?
You may be surprised to learn that couples aren't happier than singletons. Sure, couples who walk down the aisle reap financial and health benefits from their partnership, and they report higher levels of happiness in the years leading up to the wedding, but the euphoria from the honeymoon quickly rubs off.
Further, the claim that marriage makes us happy is especially false when it comes to women. Convincing research shows that single women are actually happier than those who are married.
And let’s not mix up being single with being lonely. John T. Cacioppo, the director of the Center for Cognitive and Social Neuroscience at the University of Chicago, makes a clear distinction between being single and being lonely, which are too often conflated in our society. He explains that when singletons pursue relationships out of guilt, they get farther away from happiness, not closer.
Another interesting fact is that across the United States, single people are now a majority. Most adults in America (100 million to be exact) are single, and 31 million are living alone. In major cities such as Manhattan and Washington, DC, half of households are made up of single people. Studies have shown that single people are known to socialize with friends and neighbors, and volunteer and engage with their community more than married folks. Long story short, single people are not only the majority, they are also pretty darn happy.
And buying things doesn't make us happy either.
Americans spent a whopping $17.6 million on Valentine’s Day last year. That’s a LOT of candy and oversized bears, no matter how oversized they are. Although we’d expect the young, fast, and free to be the most jaded about the holiday, millennials outnumber all other segments of the population in terms of their V-Day spending. The average person aged 25-34 will actually spend $176.85 in preparation for the love fest. What do people spend on? Most people bought cards and candy.
Meanwhile, studies show that we are happier when we spend our money on experiences rather than material objects, because the effect on our well-being is durable as opposed to fleeting. We adapt very quickly to commercial goods, and that’s why they don’t have a lasting effect on our happiness. Much less adaptation occurs when it comes to experiences, because the memories stay with us longer than the event itself. So you might want to think twice before you splurge in the Hallmark aisle this year and save that money for the vacation jar.
The constraining stereotypes about Valentine's Day don't bring us joy. If excluding gays and oppressing women makes you happy, then I retract my statement. But overall, Valentine's Day is not a celebratory occasion for all people.
One of the criticisms of the Occupy Valentine’s Day Movement is that it often lauds heterosexual love exclusively. GLADD (Gay and Lesbian Alliance Against Defamation) recognizes this issue and publishes a helpful guide for the media to keep V-Day LGBTQ friendly.
Moreover, Valentine's Day is plagued by outdated gendered stereotypes that are oppressive for both men and women. Men are supposed to actively court, while women are expected to passively surrender. The message that the media sends during Valentine’s Day is that if men buy them enough pretty and tasty things, women will reciprocate with sex. In other words, men should put down their credit cards and women should … well, put out.
I know what some of you are thinking: That’s just proof that chivalry’s not dead. Huzza! Plus, these scripts were written for us by nature, not nurture, so let it go already. If there’s one thing that the '90s taught us (in addition to never cheat when you’re “on a break”) it's that men are from Mars and women are from Venus. Because our behaviours are ingrained in our biology and are evolutionarily determined, they cannot be changed.
Sorry for disrupting your entire gender belief system (and possibly your understanding of the solar system too), but men and women aren’t categorically different, as previously believed. According to the team of researchers at Washington University, men and women are more alike than not.
After analyzing data from 13,301 individuals and looking at 122 different characteristics like empathy, agreeableness, and intimacy, researchers did not find that characteristics could be sorted out according to gender. There was too much variability between the sexes and too much overlap between them for researchers to conclude that it was possible to classify women and men based on psychological indicators or attitudes. After taking a second look at the data used by 13 academic papers, lead researcher Bobbi Carothers stated, “sex is not nearly as confining a category as stereotypes and even some academic studies would have us believe."
Dr. Kellie Burns, a gender scholar at the University of Sydney, explains that this is groundbreaking research will help us understand that our traditional ideal about gender difference "is an outmoded and limited way of seeing relationships […] [S]cience is used to justify gender difference as natural but there is resounding evidence that our culture, society, norms, expectations, customs and ideologies play the most significant role in shaping the gender order."
Perhaps it’s time we move away from bold essentialist claims about men and women and instead recognize them for what they are: human beings. Instead of celebrating a constraining form of heteronormative love that leaves too many of us excluded, we should celebrate everyone’s freedom to experience love and happiness.
How about celebrating the fact that the Illinois legislature will be voting to legalize same sex marriage on Valentine’s Day and that it is very likely to pass? Or how about joining the crowd of one billion people organizing a dance party to end violence against women?
The point is that there are many reasons to re-think the way we celebrate Valentine’s Day. The research suggests that we don’t need a candy-gram from a secret admirer to live happily ever after and that spending our hard earned cash on heart shaped goods is not the best way into someone’s heart. If you’re with someone this Valentine’s day, think about what would really make them happy to honor your love.
And instead of limiting it to the specific love that you share with someone, why not celebrate love in all is permutations? Why not use the holiday to raise awareness about the issues that you care about? (For a complete list of all the awesome dance parties and events surrounding V-day in your area check out One Billion Rising.) Heck, take the time to love yourself.
Changing the way you celebrate won’t just make you happier. It may make the world a bit happier too.