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Putting the Happy Back into the Holidays

Wednesday, October 22, 2014 Leave a Comment

By Lisa Culhane

The holidays are just around the corner. I know this because the catalogs encouraging me to redecorate my entire house lest my guests judge my inferior interior have started to arrive along with the Christmas decorations at the neighborhood mega store.

If the idea of the holidays brings a smile to your face and you find yourself skipping around the room then you’re set. Enjoy. However, if the thought makes you feel like sprinting for the corkscrew as you shove copious amounts of chocolate into your mouth or you suddenly feel the desire to curl up under your desk in the fetal position, read on.

Every year it happens. We think this is it. This is the year I’m going to get the holidays Pinterest perfect. We know it’s possible because obviously everyone else is doing it.

Or are they?

Comparing ourselves to the social media vortex is a sure-fire recipe for guilt, stress and overwhelm. To avoid this pretty little cocktail this season try the steps outlined below. Decide to put the happy back into your holidays. For many the holiday season is filled with unrealistic expectations that can be a minefield, whether we're expecting something from someone else or from ourselves. Either way, when we wind up with a different outcome from the one we hoped for, disappointment guilt and blame aren’t far behind.

Anne Lamont calls expectations “resentments under construction.”  Unchecked, expectations can create all sorts of angst, especially around the holidays. As the saying goes, hope springs eternal and perhaps this is the year your family will change. The year that your brother won’t get sloppy drunk, that your uncle will keep his racist comments to himself and that your mother won’t lean over and stage whisper, “are you sure you want that cookie dear?” But expecting your family to change is setting yourself up for disappointment. In spite of our most ardent hopes, the most likely scenario is that no one is going to change. In fact, the only person you can absolutely count on to change is you.

One way to make a positive change is to notice and note your conscious and unconscious

Christmas Morning
expectations. For instance, perhaps you unconsciously expect to have a relaxing Christmas day in which you stay in PJ’s and read your new book from Santa. However, if you’re staying at your in-laws who invite the world over for brunch you are going to be disappointed. Or maybe you are planning an elaborate dinner that will take everyone’s help to prepare, yet your family would prefer eating something simple and spending the time together working a new puzzle.

This year, instead of enduring disappointment, head it off at the pass. By simply noticing and noting your expectations, you can create more realistic ones or choose a different path.  For instance, you cannot enjoy a day in your PJs if you have agreed to stay at your in-laws. So, you need to make a conscious decision. You can agree to go to your in-laws and adjust your expectations or decide to stay home for the holidays so you can enjoy a PJ day. Or maybe you agree to go to your in-laws but leave a day early so you can create a second Christmas day at home where everyone spends the day in PJ’s reading and relaxing. The point in noticing and noting your expectations is to create a solution that works rather than unconsciously believing in an unrealistic outcome.

Another issue that can lead to holiday disappointment is failing to set boundaries, especially around gift-giving and over-planned schedules.

First, let’s address gifts and how we receive them. Again, start by checking in with your expectations. If there is something you want, ask for it because no one can read your mind. No one. Believe me, I’ve tried. For years my expectation was that if my husband loved me, he would know what I wanted. Giving up this simple, but crazy expectation helped both of us immensely. Trust me. Don’t count on Osmosis. Ask. And be realistic. In addition, be gracious. There will almost always be a something that takes you by surprise. Just assume the person meant well and move on. Dwelling on the meaning of a misguided gift will only make everyone involved feel bad. (And keep reading for my suggestion on how to turn that blooper into a winner!)

Now, for those you plan to buy for, I suggest a fresh perspective. Instead of sending Aunt Bess yet another fruit cake or pair of slippers consider making a donation in her name to an organization she loves. Or, consider giving Uncle Alfred an invitation for tea or ask him over for a game night and he’ll be far happier in the long run. In fact, studies on the Greater Good website demonstrate that experiences make people happier than possessions and that the feeling of happiness grows, rather than fades, over time. You might find this dubious but one year my 11 year old daughter was thrilled to receive a single book, a jump rope, toothpaste and a handful of treats for Christmas while my 9 year old son was delighted with his book, popsicle sticks, yoyo and treats. We were traveling and tested the concept in real time that having fun experiences together trumped stuff. And it worked.

The marketers would love for you to believe that everyone wants more stuff. I encourage you to take a moment and question that premise. You might be pleasantly surprised.

As for time, if you are truly the belle of the ball type with a closet full of good dresses, a reliable babysitter and copious amounts of free time, then by all means say yes to every invitation that comes your way. However, if you’re not, graciously saying no to every invitation that doesn’t light you up like the Christmas tree in Rockefeller Center is a better choice.

To accomplish this, start today, before the invitations begin to arrive by creating a way to measure your reaction. Take out a sheet of paper and draw a line across the page. In the middle of the line write a big fat 0, which is neutral. At one end of the line put a -10 which means absolutely not and at the other a +10 which means absolutely. This is your scale. When an invitation arrives, pull out your scale, take three deep breaths and then simply ask yourself, “Where does this invitation fall on the scale?”

Write down the first number that pops into your head -- the number that arrives a split second before the rationalization that says “but it’s my boss, best friend, mother, etc.” If the first number is a + 5 or above, RSVP yes and for anything less, decline. No excuses are necessary. Just say no politely. A simple note or phone call that simply says, “Thank you so much for your kind invitation. We’re so flattered to be included and so sorry that we will be unable to attend” will suffice. While initially difficult, this practice ensures that you are spending your time on the things you truly enjoy rather than on the things you’ve justified as being important. And it is this simple practice, repeated again and again, that allows real happiness to take root.

Another issue that often causes holiday anxiety is a never-ending to-do list. This can be stressful, both because an unfinished list prevents you from relaxing, and because many of us simply put items on the list that are neither important nor satisfying to our holiday season.

Just like above, using a scale to manage your to-do list is helpful. First, make a list. Don’t skimp. Write every little and big thing down. Now go back over the list and notice which items make you feel like skipping and which items bring up a feeling of dread and rate them on your scale from a -10 (I would rather die than complete this task) to a +10 (This makes me feel like skipping!) Put a check next to every thing that rates above a +5. For everything else, ask yourself if it is really necessary. If not, see if you can just decide to not do it. (Bag it.) Many items might initially seem important but really just add a lot of work without actually adding much to your holiday celebration. Is the time and effort of homemade cookies worth it? Or would you be just as happy with treats from the store or from that bakery you’ve been meaning to try? Everyone’s answer will be different. That’s the point. It’s not about doing what’s on Pinterest or everyone else’s list but rather about doing what makes you feel good.

If after an honest evaluation there are still items on your list that don’t make you feel like skipping and are necessary, figure out a way to get someone else to do it for you by either paying them to do it or trading a service. (Barter it.) Or make doing the item more fun for yourself. (Better it.) For instance, I dislike shopping both on-line and in stores and the pressure and crowds of the holidays increase that feeling. So last year I first limited the number of items I needed to buy by giving donations in people’s names in lieu of gifts to many on our list. Then I limited my actual shopping to the few stores I truly enjoy. (Bettered it.) Finally, my husband then did the rest of the shopping on-line for specific gifts we couldn’t get at those select shops. (Bartered it.) And viola, just like that the dreaded holiday shopping was not only done but enjoyable and easy.

Another sneaky component here is the glorification of busyness and feeling stressed. That’s a black hole you want to avoid. As friends, colleagues, family and social media compete for who is busier choose not to participate in the conversation. I guarantee that you’ll feel better.   No matter your best intentions we can still get overwhelmed despite our best efforts. When this happens, sometimes just observing yourself and your situation, as though you were watching a movie, can give you a new perspective and allow you to see the humor in your situation.

For instance, I like to pretend I write for The Onion and as the holiday drama unfolds I reframe the scene in my mind as if it’s going to be an Onion article.  In doing so, I’m able to distance myself enough from the situation so that things that usually make me crazy make me laugh instead. If the idea of being a satirist doesn’t work for you perhaps the idea of a contest does. Invite 4 friends to contribute $10 each or have everyone pony up their worst gift of the season and whoever has the craziest family story when you reconvene for the post mortem, wins the money or box of bloopers. At the very least, make arrangements with a trusted confederate who you can call to debrief with while you’re in the middle of crazy town. Just knowing you are going to share your story with a friend may help you detach, just enough, from the craziness and not be drawn in. Whether viewing the scenario as if it’s a movie, using humor, a contest or debriefing, the idea is that you see your siblings bickering, your child’s fit about not getting a pony or the gift from your mother-in-law as something to laugh about.

Yes, the holidays can be stressful. However, by noticing and noting your expectations, limiting your activities to things that fall into the higher range of your happiness scale and learning to laugh at the craziness, you can put the happy back into the season. Skipping is optional.

Lisa Culhane is the author of Discover the New G Spot (or How to Unfriend Your Guilt), a Life Coach, weekly gratitude blogger and the mother of 2 teenagers and can be found at lisaculhane.com or reached at lisa@lisaculhane.com