Between You and Me

Why some relationships work—and others don't

Tips for Making your Holidays Brighter

On giving and receiving gifts, navigating family relations, and staying healthy

The holidays are upon us, which can mean family, fun, food, and cheer. But also, stress, anxiety, conflict, and caloric guilt. Psychology has a lot to say about how to promote the former and avoid the latter, so I've compiled psychology tips on how to make your holidays a little bit brighter.

 On giving and receiving gifts:

-It is not the thought that counts. There is a mismatch in our preference for giving and our preference for receiving gifts. We like to think that a thoughtful gift is the best kind, but gift recipients really just want to receive a gift they like - so know that picking a gift from someone's amazon wish-list is a surefire way to guarantee a happy Christmas. But if you went off-road this Christmas when buying your presents, temper your expectations for how happy the recipient will be when receiving a gift accompanied by out-of-the-box thinking. And if you are receiving a gift that isn't what you expected, remember that the gift giver thought they were doing something nice by putting in that extra thought and not just clicking on the amazon link.

Mental workouts to put you in the Holiday mood:

-Make the most of your holiday time by seeking out awe-inspiring moments to help time stand stillTake a moment to watch a beautiful sunset, peek out your window in the morning and take in the snow-laden trees (if you don't live in California, that is), and you just might find yourself feeling like time moves a little slower (and being more helpful). 

-Don't approach your holidays with unrealistically positive expectations. If you are picturing a Beaver family Christmas, you might find yourself disappointed. Putting all of your attention into imagining an impossible picture of the holidays tires you out, makes sure the holidays won't live up to your expectations, and keeps you from putting in the work to make it the best time (realistically) possible.

 -If you want to flourish during the holidays, make sure your time is filled with more good than bad. The goal isn't to make sure there are no awkward gift exchanges or loud fights at the dinner table, just make sure that the positive interactions outweigh the negative ones (by at least 5 to 1, some say). So put on your favorite holiday movie, cook your favorite holiday treat, don't plan too many stressful crafting or cooking projects, and spend some quality time with the people you love the most. 

-Remember your pets are family too! A little pet treat will let your furry friends know you care and thank them for all the support (and the enhanced longevity) they've given you over the years.

On navigating family relations:

-When you and your partner navigating how to split up the holidays between the in-laws, remember that this is a situation that may call for sacrificebut that doesn't mean you need to just give up and give in. Consider both sides of the situation, and after you make the plans, make sure you did it for the right reasons.

-Instead of following all the same holiday traditions, try doing something new with a romantic partner to help keep the spark alive in your relationship during a potentially stressful time. No time to do something new? Try these other relationship tips.

-Uncover your family's status hierarchy, few groups exist without them, and figuring out where you stand in your family's hierarchy may help you better navigate the family dynamics.

-Avoid talking about politics or commenting on other moral issues. Folk wisdom has it right - these are emotionally-charged topics and there might not be enough room for them at the dinner table, especially since we actually try to sit further away from people we don't agree with.

When eating that delicious, calorie rich meal:

-Tap into your "agreeable" side. Not only will this aid in family interactions, you may find yourself not overeating at those holiday rich meals!

-And consider these simple tricks for healthier eating. Don't want to drink too much eggnog? Put it in a tall, thin glass. When setting out the food for a meal, put the healthy food up front and the junkier food farther out of reach. And give the veggies fun names - you may see your kids reaching for seconds!

Wishing you and all of yours a safe and happy holiday season!

Amie M. Gordon, Ph.D. is a post-doctoral scholar in Social-Personality Psychology at the University of California, Berkeley. 

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