The holiday season offers lots of opportunities for improving wellbeing: getting together with those we love, taking time off to celebrate and relax, and enjoying the nostalgia of the season. Science even shows that these small acts we practice during the holidays can actually make us happier.
But the holidays can also be incredibly stressful. Looking back to past years, many people have just as much trouble with holiday rituals like time famine: that feeling of being overwhelmed, overcommitted, and up against the clock that leads to stress and unhappiness during what many consider to be the most wonderful time of the year.
In a typical holiday season, we’re bouncing around from house to house, party to party, event to event, always thinking about the moment we just left or looking towards the next. This constant whirlwind of holiday excitement intensifies a sense of existing outside the here and now.
But when a year like 2020 comes along, we have a chance to embrace a new way of celebrating. This might just be the strangest holiday season on record. All those typical, festive traditions are cancelled: the parties, the shopping trips, the dinners.
But when we’re given all this extra time, it allows us to get back into our senses, pay attention to the details around us, and turn down the intensity of the season. That’s not to say the stressors aren’t still lurking, there’s just a different variety this year.
We don’t have as many commitments, which can enable us to enjoy things we would often overlook. We can linger and appreciate these lowkey moments by digging in and savoring an experience we would—in normal times—rush past. There is still stress lurking, just of a different variety.
Here are ways we can all feel more peaceful and joyful during the 2020 holiday season.
Choose to Give
A little kindness truly goes such a long way. Often, finding gifts for everyone on the list can feel like a stressful chore. Instead, many of us opt to gift ourselves, thinking that it will make us happier. In reality, research shows that spending money on others is what actually promotes happiness.
It’s not that treating ourselves is a terrible idea; it’s that gifting and giving to others can be helpful to our own wellbeing. And it’s often overlooked. We think that treating ourselves is always best. But studies show that people who spend money on others feel happier at the end of the day than those that spend money on themselves. Giving feels better than what our minds tell us.
When trying to find the perfect gift, time might be the best. Psychologist Ashley Whillans found that time-saving purchases improve happiness. She and her colleagues gave people money one week to save time, and another week to spend on a material purchase. Weeks where people made a time-saving purchase—getting a house cleaner or ordering take-out—they felt happier and less stressed. They felt more in control of their schedule and their life.
This year also runs a new and different risk: because there are so few in-person gatherings, we run the risk of missing out on social connections. It’s important to find time to give to those we love (over FaceTime or Zoom) and pre-commit to these events, even if they are virtual. Likewise, it’s important to take time for oneself. With all of these virtual hangs come the coordinating schedules and always-on, forced get-togethers, which can create different feelings of stress. Make sure you’re also gifting yourself time to reset and relax.
Gratitude is feeling thankful. It is a practice that can give us the strength we need to weather tough situations; it can help us live resiliently. As Eckhart Tolle explains:
“Acknowledging the good you already have in your life is the foundation of all abundance.”
Practicing gratitude is the quickest, easiest, and most powerful way to effect change in your life. It helps us grow an unshakable core of calm, strength, and happiness that helps us deal with everyday stresses, as well as massive tribulations. It can also help us to see the bigger picture and the hidden opportunities in every situation. It’s also medicine for the mind, body, and soul.
So how can we best practice gratitude? Integrate it into everyday life. Noticing the niceties surrounding us, counting blessings rather than burdens, contemplating the goodness of life, thinking about how cozy you are in your favorite sweater, focusing on the smell of your favorite candle, and relishing sips of hot, early morning coffee are simple, yet powerful, everyday ways to practice gratitude.
Rituals have a way of making us feel a little bit more connected during the holidays, according to Mike Norton. They provide a framework for family events: they tell us what to do at each moment, rather than people standing around awkwardly, trying to avoid fights. Rituals allow for the day to happen optimally.
Holidays are rituals in and of themselves. Rituals follow symbolic, yet often arbitrary rules that allow us to connect with each other while enjoying the beauty of life. Opening presents together, stringing lights on the tree, and baking cookies are all examples of holiday rituals. And while this year they may look different, it’s important to redefine and continue these family traditions to fit the current situation. In a year filled with uncertainty and anxiety, rituals offer us peace and hope.