Is it really the “most wonderful time of the year”?

Tips for getting the most joy out the holiday season

By Leah Persky • Family Life Education Manager

So many of us begin planning for and thinking about the busy winter holiday season many months before it officially begins. We see the holiday decorations up in stores beginning the day after Halloween, followed by more than two months of actual holiday time. There is a lot of anticipation and expectation about how we should feel this time of year and what we should be doing to celebrate. We may feel the holiday pressure building before the first snowflake even falls.

There are a range of emotions we may feel during the holidays: anticipation, excitement, high-spirits, anxiety, sadness, and/or loneliness, just to name a few. There are also related stresses that come from lots of engagements and spending; it creates a roller-coaster of emotions, even for the most grounded and well-rested person.

Leah Persky

This can also be an especially hard time of year for people who are mourning the loss of a loved one, people who are alone, and those that are far away from loved ones. Further, many people feel down or anxious this time of year and these feelings are only exacerbated by seeing others around us that look happy, relaxed and carefree. We compare ourselves to this standard and may feel this pressure even more keenly.

Americans report feeling higher levels of stress and anxiety during the holiday season. There are also clear gender patterns here: women report experiencing higher levels of stress around financial issues, gift-giving, and the lack of time to do it all. At the population level, it is women who take on the bulk of the planning, shopping and preparing of family meals/events (according to Greenberg Quinlan Rosner Reasearch). 

The realities and sadness we experience in life are in stark contrast with the joy, gratitude and happiness we are expected to experience during this time of year. The power of popular culture, advertisements we see and hear, and the commercial nature of and focus on gift-giving can combine to create a set of unrealistic expectations and discontent with our own holiday experiences. They can also exacerbate old hurts, highlight how much we miss family members who have passed away, and highlight our own loneliness and unhappiness. With these unrealistic expectations, of course our real life experiences will not measure up. So what can you do to get the most joy out of the holiday season?

Realize what you need to feel your best: Learn to say no to what you feel does not serve you (and your family).  Be realistic with the time you have available and your work and school expectations. Also know that if you don’t have many family or friends in town, work to actively seek out people and activities to fill your schedule. There are many volunteer opportunities to take part in over the season. For more information on JFCS’ varied volunteer opportunities, such as youth mentoring or providing transportation to seniors, click here. For Twin Cities Opportunities, check out the following. Also remember to keep up with your normal routines and self-care as much as possible. Get outside in the fresh air for an extra feel-good boost (yes, even if it is cold) or spend time with a family pet.

Accept that it is normal to not feel happy all of the time: Know yourself and what your baseline is. Try not to force yourself to feel any certain way and be gentle with yourself. There is no one right way to feel this time of year. If you feel grumpy and down, know you are not alone. Our feelings and emotions usually ebb and flow, and that is normal. If you are grieving, accept that this is where you are now, and that you can use this time to heal and connect with other friends and family in your life and start yourself on the path of healing. If you feel very down for two weeks or more, think about talking with a trained professional, like one of our counseling staff at JFCS.

Start a gratitude practice: This may be as simple as a few minutes of deep breathing, a quick meditation or a mindful walk, or starting a journal or visualizing practice. A regular gratitude practice can improve mental and physical health, improve mental outlook, reduce feelings of anger, and increase feelings of empathy with others. For more information on the power of this practice, check out the following.

Embrace the imperfections: Once we realize just how commercialized the holiday season has become, we can begin to separate ourselves from it. Work to separate want from need and prep your family for what to expect in terms of holiday gifts this year. In an effort to be more environmentally friendly and create stronger family bonds, many families are focusing on giving experiences rather than things. To avoid financial pressure and reduce waste, focus on thrift-store or vintage gifts. I know my son will not mind that the lot of new transformer toys I purchased for him have been pre-tested by someone else!

Put down the phone: In the attempt to manage it all, many of us turn to our phones for the purchases and planning and research. But, just be careful that this is not something that starts to seep into our family time. Phone snubbing or “phubbing” (looking at and using your phone instead of fully interacting with the people you are with) is a common occurrence and can harm your closest relationships. Think about what your phone habits are, think about what behavior you want to model, and make the changes needed. This requires time and effort, but is well worth it. It fosters healthy relationships, better posture and better sleep.

In our society, we tend to focus so much on outward appearances and snapping that perfect pic for our social media feed – even when we are at home and relaxing alone. If we can try to step away from all of that and accept the joy in the simple things, the in-between moments, the dirty dishes and daily activities, we will be on the path of enjoying and being present for ourselves and our families. Being present, accepting how we feel in the moment and working to enjoy the messiness of life is truly what this season is all about. So go ahead ­– let the house be messy, lose your phone for a few hours, take a walk, order some dinner or groceries in, and say no to the things that don’t fill you up.