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Why Do People Go Nuts on New Year's Eve?

Rachel Pomerance

True story. Last year, I went to a New Year's Eve party based on the following facts: It was being held at a very cool coffeehouse and geared toward an older crowd. By older, I mean not 20somethings, who I'd considered the rowdiest of revelers. And by coffeehouse, well, it seemed an unlikely site to teem with drunk crowds of 20somethings. In my mind, that combo created the possibility for a dignified New Year's celebration, one in which people weren't humping each other in plain view and vomiting. Hopefully, not at the same time. I know I sound like a New Year's Eve scrooge, but my definition of not fun definitely includes crowds of vomiting humpers.

Since this New Year's Eve would be different, I chose to embrace it. I pulled out the slinky, red dress from the back of my closet that had been unworn, tag still attached, for years. It was a hugely discounted impulse buy, made at Loehmann's, under the momentarily delusional idea that it would make the perfect dress for a romantic jaunt to Italy (Is there any other kind?) someday. I seriously imagined me and the dress and the man and the balcony, but, no, there has been no such Italy jaunting. So, when I spotted the forgotten but still hopeful dress, I shared the thought experienced by countless people before me and yet to come: What the heck? It's New Year's Eve!

Several hours later, I'm in the dress and the ever-growing bathroom line when the town crier in front announces that this might take awhile. I don't know who or what he knows, but I think: Oh crap. Someone's already sick or has IBS. It was worse. Moments later, one giddy couple emerges from one bathroom, and a second set exits the other. Incidentally, the second duo were a pair of senior citizens, her face flushed and hair tousled as they scurried out of sight, and because I have no filter, I exclaimed: "You have GOT to be kidding me!" And then, because I'm germophobic about these things, I left the line. I didn't drink that night to avoid having to negotiate some nasty, sticky bathroom. The party was just getting started. And it only got weirder.

And all of that got me thinking: What is it about New Year's Eve? What makes people, of all ages, get trashed and decide to fulfill that bucket-list wish to do it in a grimy, coffeehouse bathroom?

[Read Holiday Vices: How to Have Fun Without Overdoing It.]

New Year's Eve represents the rare, sanctioned occasion for excess. Our culture tell us to live it up on this night, to let go. And to some extent, that's OK.

"What sets humans apart from all other species is the extensive use of culture. But for culture to work, people have to follow rules, which means denying themselves things and blocking some of their impulses," says Roy Baumeister, professor of social psychology at Florida State University and author of Willpower: Rediscovering the Greatest Human Strength. "Willpower is limited. It's easier to tell yourself 'not now' than 'never.' And so having an occasional time of indulgence makes self-control easier. Throughout history and around the world, most cultures have had festivals at which the ordinary rules were temporarily suspended."

At the same time, indulgence can beget more indulgence, especially when it comes to alcohol and people don't realize how much they've imbibed, Baumeister says. In some cases, straying off course can mean a headlong dive into risky behavior.

"Everything in moderation, I always say," says J. Buzz Von Ornsteiner, psychologist and project director for the Mental Health Court Advocacy Program in New York. "Excess indicates that the individual has lost control and is powerless over what he or she craves ... However, many individuals tell me that they 'store up their stress and anxiety' and then on New Year's Eve use that bottled-up stress--as an excuse or rationalization to get drunk, take drugs, have multiple sexual contacts or overeat, since it's once a year and somewhat culturally accepted. In addition, in some circles, it's often encouraged."

The extent to which one is cowed by peer pressure hinges on one's own sense of self-worth, Ornsteiner explains. And that can take a beating during the holiday season, when people take stock of their lives and may feel they are lacking. That's where this season can trigger depression, and New Year's Eve debauchery can provide an escape to that plight, Ornsteiner says.

[Read 5 Ways to Reflect, Refocus, and Renew Your Life.]

Revelers may also consider the night's indulgences a "last hurrah," and the next day's hangover good motivation for a fresh start, says Ryan Howes, a psychologist based in Pasadena, Calif. "People may get excess out of their system temporarily, but without a dramatic paradigm shift, they'll still feel pulled toward the excess once in a while. And when you feel horrible, you look for something to make you feel better."

So what's the solution?

Strive for balance, "the model of health," Howes says. "Neither excessive restriction nor excessive indulgence benefit us in the long run. Many people can manage their urges toward excess through the healthy spring and swimsuit summer months, but they have difficulty during the celebration-heavy slide from Labor Day to New Year's. Egg nog is not made from kale." However, "if you adopt an attitude of balanced living, which includes some healthy choices with a few moderate indulgences, the holidays shouldn't be a problem."

Ornsteiner recommends using healthy, routine antidotes to stress such as physical fitness to gain control, rather than be controlled by one's particular anxieties. To that end, each person will have to find his or her own approach, he says.

[Read How to Be Happier At Home: Tips from Gretchen Rubin.]

That might mean making small, instead of sweeping, New Year's resolutions. Maybe you'll insist on a half-hour each day to fight stress through meditation, or you'll try to fortify yourself and your family by cooking meals more often. Perhaps you'll spend New Year's Eve the way you'd really like--at home with a few friends and favorite flicks. And, maybe you won't wait for an imaginary trip to Italy to wear that sexy red dress. Maybe you'll just wear it to dinner.

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