‘Tis the season to be jolly, but a surprising number of people feel just the opposite this time of year. For an explanation—and solutions—we talked with Gretchen Rubin, author of the bestselling books The Happiness Project and Happier at Home (now out in paperback), and creator of the popular—and incredibly helpful—blog, The Happiness Project.
Q: Is experiencing the holiday blues natural?
A: Absolutely. We are bombarded with messages that we are supposed to be happy on holidays, especially on Christmas, Hanukkah and Thanksgiving. You don't see people fighting in commercials. Everyone is smiling.
All of these expectations, combined with the running around people have to do—the traveling, finding the "perfect" present and trying to make everyone happy—often leaves people feeling anxious, lonely and depressed. And once the holidays are over, it's a new year. New expectations, new resolutions. No time to relax. Just more pressure.
Q: Shouldn't being with our family on a holiday make us happy?
A:Relatives can be difficult people. And you can't trade them. So although holidays are supposed to be happy occasions, you might dread being with your family based on past experiences. If you have an obnoxious brother, he probably hasn't changed all that much. If you don't like your mother-in-law during the year, she's not going to be that much better during the holidays. And if she is stressed out, she might even be worse!
Q: Are some people more prone to the holiday blues than others?
A: People who experience a loss or a change in their life are more prone to the holiday blues. Holidays mark the passage of time. If this is the first Christmas or Hanukkah after the loss of one's spouse, parent or child, there is a real emptiness, sometimes literally at the table, that can't be filled with anything else. So even though the message is to be happy, you can't. And no one should expect you to be otherwise.
In addition, people who have gone through a divorce may also be more prone to the holiday blues. Your life has changed. Things are not the way they want they once were. Your children may not be with you this holiday, they may be with your ex. All of those commercials showing happy families together make you feel worse.
Q: Does nostalgia play a role?
A: Absolutely. As we age, our lives become more complicated. Even if your parents are still together, you might be spending the holiday with the in-laws. If you grew up with a family that had certain traditions, such as a special dish that was cooked or a special time you exchanged presents, it's not going to be the same. Your familiar and comforting traditions are not their traditions.
We also tend to remember the good things about the past and often idealize it. You might remember the great meal, but don't remember the fights that occurred or the tension between those present, or the 12 hours it took to get to your relatives’ home. And children don't understand the family dynamics that go on around them. For them the holiday seems ideal. They received great presents and played with their cousins. They don't remember their uncle being drunk, or they may not have even noticed.
Q: What are some strategies to avoid the holiday blues?
A: Planning ahead is important. If you think you're not going to have a good time during a holiday, you probably won't. So the first strategy is to change your attitude. You can't make your sibling or parent more likeable. But if you say to yourself, "I hate being here, but at least I don't have to cook or clean," well that's a start. And while they are busy cooking and cleaning, you can talk to the other guests.