https://www.bbc.com-(Image credit: Kae Lani Palmisano)
By Kate Morgan
Celebrating is the last thing we want to do when things are grim. But research says throwing tiny parties to mark even the smallest moments could lift you way up.
In 2020, like so many others, Kae Lani Palmisano started making sourdough bread. At the end of January, she baked a loaf so perfect it deserved a party. So, the 31-year-old threw it one; she got “all dolled up”, had a photoshoot with the boule-shaped bread, sliced it up and made a series of deluxe grilled-cheese sandwiches. Then, she photographed those, too, and put it all up on Instagram.
In a life before the pandemic, Palmisano, the Emmy Award-winning host of Check, Please! Philly on WHYY, Philadelphia’s public television channel, probably wouldn’t have spent an entire day celebrating a baked good. But after a year of no parties – at least not in the traditional sense – she was starved for celebration.
“It was just about celebrating that I’ve progressed in my sourdough making,” she says. “It has taken me months to figure out how to deal with the dough, how long to let my loaf ferment, at what temperature it needs to rest before I put it in the oven… there’s all these factors I’ve been tweaking. It’s surprisingly complex. But I finally got this picturesque loaf.”
For Palmisano, it seemed like a noteworthy occasion. “It was a celebration of hard work and practice. Like a violin recital or a graduation – it’s this moment of showing the world, I’ve practiced, I’ve learned, and voila!”
Over the last year, Palmisano says she’s found herself looking for small moments to celebrate in a big way, and she’s not the only one. A 2021 trend report from Pinterest that looks at how users are engaging with the site shows an increasing number of people are throwing “micro-parties”. Google trends also show a recent spike in searches for terms like “tiny party” and many caterers and event-planning companies have even begun marketing micro-party packages. In some cases, it’s a miniaturised version of an event, like a wedding or baby shower, that was derailed by social distancing. But others are about celebrating the small stuff: a “my bad flatmate moved out” bash, a “my son can sit up” shindig, or a “perfect bread” party.
Celebrating these seemingly arbitrary moments may seem odd, especially given the difficulties of pandemic life. But scientists say that throwing micro-parties, especially when we’re still holed up at home, can have lasting benefits for our mental health.
The propensity to party
Celebrating is a natural human tendency, explains Fred B Bryant, a professor of social psychology at Loyola University in Chicago. “Across every culture, it goes back to the dawn of recorded time,” he says. “There’s the celebration of successfully hunting a mastodon, or a good harvest, celebrations of discovery, of good fortune.”
Most of the time, we’re inclined to see landmark events that don’t happen often as causes for celebration: things like graduations, retirements, bridal showers and birthdays. The pandemic hasn’t stopped us from celebrating those, of course, but it has meant that what was supposed to be a 100-person banquet is, instead, an hour-long Zoom call.
While it’s still good to mark those occasions – and Bryant, the author of Savoring: A New Model of Positive Experience, says a compromise party is better than no party at all – these celebrations can be a bit of a bittersweet experience. “The enemy of enjoyment is comparison,” he says. In other words, it’s tough to totally enjoy your virtual party when you’re comparing it to the event you originally planned.
There are far more little things to celebrate than there are milestones – Fred B Bryant
That’s one of the major benefits of micro-parties. Because you’re celebrating something that – if it weren’t for being stuck at home, social calendar wiped clean – may not have otherwise warranted a party, you’re not mourning what could have been.
Plus, those big events only come along a few times a year, but “there are far more little things to celebrate than there are milestones”, says Bryant. “The wedding you get one shot at, but the little things you get every day.”
Why not celebrate ‘Stout-erday’?
Early last year, Palmisano and her husband went out to local breweries a few Saturdays in a row. Each time, her husband ordered a dark beer – a stout – and began jokingly referring to the routine as “Stout-erday”.
In March, two days before Palmisano was due back in the studio to film a new season of her TV show, the first stay-at-home orders went into effect in Philadelphia. Filming was postponed, “and we were both just in this daze of confusion and fear”, says Palmisano. “We were just lying on the floor in our sunroom, looking into this bleak dystopian future, and he got up and said, ‘well, it’s Stout-erday! Gotta have a stout!’ It was a little bit of joy in a very uncertain time.”
In the months since, the couple has kept up the tradition. Most Saturdays, they set aside time to split a beer (though not always a stout), making it a point to seek out and try new brews and support local breweries. “It helps break up the monotony of things,” Palmisano says, “and gives us something to look forward to.”
In fact, by planning a weekly celebratory event, the pair may have been unknowingly inoculating themselves against boredom, anxiety and depression, says Hadassah Littman-Ovadia, a professor of psychology at Ariel University in Israel’s West Bank. In a study she co-authored in 2012, Littman-Ovadia found that people who regularly compile a list of positive things to anticipate experience “reduced pessimism, negative affect and emotional exhaustion”. And the impact lasted – in some cases, for at least a month.
“You can apply this very simple intervention in your daily life,” says Littman-Ovadia. “Even, or maybe especially, in this period of time.”
To reap the psychological benefits, adds Bryant, you have to be deliberate about celebrating. “The trouble with celebrating is that it’s normally pushed aside by more demanding negative things,” he says. “We have to cope with the bad things: they happen, and you’re forced to deal with it. It’s very reactive. But we’re not forced to celebrate the good things. When something positive happens, you want to sustain it, amplify it. The trouble is, it’s not hunting you down to do that. You have to be proactive.”
What makes a party a party?
After years of wanting to replace the wall-to-wall carpet in her house, Jill Schildhouse, a 43-year-old writer living in Phoenix, Arizona, finally hired a contractor and bought 2,000 sq ft of vinyl-plank flooring. She recently planned a farewell party for the cream-coloured carpet, which she’s gone to great lengths to keep in pristine condition for the past 15 years. “I made chilli, and invited my parents over to eat it in the living room with glasses of red wine.”
For Schildhouse, the event was a tongue-in-cheek way to mark a moment that really did feel important. “It’s like the end of an era,” she says. “I bought this carpet as a young, first-time homeowner, and it was my first grown-up nice thing. It’s seen me through so much since, and now getting rid of it feels like another milestone.”
A home-renovation project may seem like a trivial thing, but that’s exactly what makes it worthy of celebration right now, says Littman-Ovadia. She uses the analogy of a table, which is typically covered in all of life’s events and obligations. Now, thanks to the pandemic, “our table is not full of everything we used to see, everything we had to do”, she says. “But when the table is almost empty, you see the things that are still there in much greater detail. You can observe the small things that before were in the background, going unremarked.”
When something positive happens, you want to sustain it, amplify it – Hadassah Littman-Ovadia
Planning a micro-party doesn’t require much. Schildhouse’s bon-voyage bash for her carpet became an official party, says Bryant, as soon as she devoted time and energy to making it special. “Parties are planned and anticipated,” he says. “You pick the place and the time and the attendees.”
Palmisano’s grilled-cheese festival was also a party. Stout-erday fits the bill, too. “You memorialise these events – build memories of them,” says Bryant. “You take photographs, gather memorabilia to mark it as an important moment worth remembering. You reminisce about it and look forward to the next one.”
It’s difficult to say when we’ll be able to safely throw parties the way we used to: dozens of people, all in the same space, eating, drinking and laughing. But for the sake of our mental health – and because it’s human nature – we have to keep finding reasons to rejoice. There’s still plenty to celebrate, says Bryant, even if those things are very, very small.
“It’s short-sighted to think all we need to do is cope with the pandemic,” he says. “The art of pandemic living is being able to still see the wonderful things that are always there. Now, people are longing for all the normal things they took for granted. All these overlooked blessings the pandemic took away, we want a second chance with them. Consider that motivation to look for and celebrate the ones you do still have – the little blessings you’re missing now.”