Beating the Holiday Blues

Happiness expert Gretchen Rubin suggests ways to feel merrier this season

by David Levine
happier at home gretchen rubin image

‘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?
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?
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?
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.

Another strategy is to make a new tradition. If your father always gave the toast before the meal and he is no longer alive, make the toast yourself and say this is in honor of my father. It is a way of preserving the tradition.

Although commercials say holidays are to be spent with family, you don't have to.  Make yourself happy. Invite a few friends for dinner or go to a restaurant. Holidays are meant to be enjoyed. Surround yourself with people who you like.

I know of a family who celebrate "Thanksmass " in the middle of December. That is because on the actual holidays, they had other obligations.  Some had to spend the holidays with their spouse's family. Others were going to be away on vacation. I like this idea because it preserves the tradition of getting together, which is this true spirit of a holiday, but reflects the realities of extended families and time pressures.

Take care of yourself. Athletes know that the night before a big sporting event they need to eat a good meal and get a good night's sleep. They want to be at their best the next day. And so should you. If you arrive at the holidays tired and stressed out from traveling, couple that with a big meal and being with your relatives, you are not going to be at your best. So "keep your gas tank full." During the holiday season, make sure you sleep and exercise as much as possible before the main event.

Remember that drinking is always not festive; it's a mood changer. If your body is worn down, it affects your emotions. Alcohol won't make you feel better. It will probably make you feel worse.

Think in advance. What do you want your holidays to be? Perhaps rather than being with your family all day, you might want to volunteer and help people who are less fortunate than you. Research shows that when you help others you feel better about yourself. So spend the morning volunteering in a shelter and the afternoon with your family.

Don't take it personally. Remember that people do not always know what to say.  Remarks like "wow, I thought you gave up smoking,"or "I've seen you put an extra pounds, what happened to the diet?"  might not be the hostile remark you think but an offhanded attempt at a joke.

Holidays are not a time for debates. My strategy for dealing with difficult relatives is accepting the fact that I really can't change them. My advice is to change your attitude if you can, or interact as minimally as possible with difficult family members.

Don't forget to be grateful. If you are in a restaurant, it may not be the traditional way of spending a holiday, but you don't have to cook and you don't have to clean up.

Negative emotions are part of a happy life. You cannot be happy all the time. If you are experiencing negative emotions, rather than trying to dismiss them, use them to examine your life. And although you may not be living the life you wanted, you are living a life.  Use this time to ask yourself what else can I do, what else do I need.

The holiday blues can be looked at as a call to action. Look at them as an opportunity, not a challenge. 

Next: How to Host Holiday Guests (and Actually Enjoy the Visit)

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First Published Wed, 2013-12-18 15:00

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