Tensions can run high when relatives gather and sadness can creep in if you are spending holidays alone. Traditions around the holidays, however, can bring joy and foster connection. People who are happier around the holidays often have traditions that strengthen social connections and help them to feel a sense of belonging.
Ways to counteract the holiday blues include:
- Creating traditions that feel fun and reliable
- Connecting to your family history (this can be family you were born into or the family you choose)
According to Christine Carter, senior fellow at the Greater Good Science Center and author of Raising Happiness: 10 Simple Steps for More Joyful Kids and Happier Parents, the best traditions are the ones that involve giving back—when you give, you get. Studies have shown that giving time or money boosts your feelings of happiness and connection. If you have a holiday tradition—like volunteering at a soup kitchen, delivering meals, or filling stockings for children in need—the benefits multiply. Both the receiver and the giver have positive outcomes. If you don’t already have a tradition of altruism, you may want to start one this year.
Holidays are filled with tastes that you only enjoy only once or twice each year. My family makes a traditional holiday dessert called grasshopper pie that we only eat at Christmas dinner. Saving it for this meal makes it seem even more special. We also love to pass along the fruitcake (even if no one ever eats it).
Cooking during the holidays is different than everyday cooking. It is an activity you often do in collaboration with friends and family. Meals become a labour of love. Deep conversations happen while peeling potatoes and decorating shortbread. The smells and tastes can bring a sense of “home” no matter where you are. Even the post-meal cleanup feels more fun when you do it in a group.
This festive time of year comes with seasonal songs. These range from timeless hymns, holiday hits, and those funny songs you sang in your grade school choir. My elementary school choir sang a rather depressing song called “I’m Getting Nothing for Christmas” and 40 years later I still remember the words and accompanying actions. Hearing it on the radio brings a sense of nostalgia and a smile every time it plays.
The physiological benefits of singing include stress reduction, improved immunity, and reduced muscle tension. It’s also pretty powerful at combating depression. Singing or listening to seasonal music fosters connection to your past, to those with whom shared your past and with the others singing with you in the present moment.
Wreaths on your door do more than increase your curb appeal. Seeing the decorations around your home change from Halloween to Thanksgiving to Christmas, Hanukkah and New Year’s is a happiness booster. These objects are tied to specific memories from your past. If the memories are wonderful, by replaying them in your mind with gratitude you increase their power of positivity. Reflecting fondly on the past activates the same area of your brain as the original joy—like an instant reply. If the memories are tense or less positive you have the opportunity to relegate them to your past and move forward using humour, forgiveness, and gratitude that you are no longer in this past.
Using the “good china” at holiday meals also imbibes a meal with importance and a sense of connectedness to those who share your family history; this brings security and a sense of belonging.
5. Outdoor Activities
Humans can tend toward hibernation in the fall and winter seasons. Shortened days can lead to less time to engage in outdoor activities. Holiday traditions like ice skating, hiking, and even raking leaves get you back outside. The fresh air and sunlight are good for your body and the time with others is good for your soul. Even if “the weather outside is frightful,” the desire to continue a tradition is like positive peer pressure to get you outside and active.
If you don’t have strong traditions yet, don’t worry—this year is the perfect time to begin. Here are a few recommendations to keep in mind:
- Less is more. Too many traditions lead to more busyness and less time to enjoy. Make sure there is balance.
- Prioritize connection. The sense that you are part of something larger is the single strongest predictor of happiness that you have.
- Schedule time for traditions. Forming a habit or tradition requires a strategy; the simplest one is to put it on your calendar. What gets scheduled gets done!
- Don’t forget down time. Holiday time can be hectic. To be at your best make sure you get enough rest. Having a day where the entire family stays in pyjamas or a day where there is nothing at all scheduled will help you to feel better during this jam-packed time of year.
- Replace expectation with appreciation. Having preconceived ideas about how things will go is a recipe for disaster. Instead, practice being grateful. Gratitude helps you to remember all the truly good things in your life with a sense of reverence.
My favourite holiday tradition began one year when I was lamenting the cost of cocktail dresses for the holiday season. I decided to buy a dress at a consignment store and decorate it complete with twinkle lights and tinsel. I wore this dress to every function over the holidays. It gave me a lift and saved some money. Now my friends begin talking about my next Christmas dress right after Thanksgiving. Does your family, office, or group of friends have a fabulous tradition? Please share it in the comments so we can all try one another’s ideas.