Shrink in the Kitchen

It’s not just food

Holiday Cheer: Finding Pleasure, Not Pain

Or why Philip Larkin's famous poem on families rings true

I have a number of patients and friends for whom this festive time of year seems gloomy rather than merry, unhappy rather than not, overwhelming but unsatisfactory. So, over the years, I've tried to help both them and me to find ways to get pleasure from the holiday season.

These strategies work:

1. Think of it as a cultural experience. Look, even Jay-Z has to spend Christmas with Beyonce's family, right? Pretend, as you listen to your brother-in-law Pete, that you are a foreign exchange student from, say, Brazil, and that this fellow? Pete? He's really interesting! He bought a new car. It's red. He drinks beer. Now you know his favorite beer. Why is it his favorite? Hoppier. What are hops? What? Time to eat already? Your mother-in-law's crown roast is famous. Find out why.  

2. Learn to cook. There is nothing more magical than spending time in the kitchen mixing, measuring, pan searing, frying, or stirring. You'd love to hear more about why Pete switched IPAs or why Uncle Philip thinks his 401K is weighted with bonds, but, unfortunately, you have to go back and make the gravy. Back in a minute. Or soon. Really soon.

3. Keep expectations low. We are talking rock bottom. Look, I believe in Santa Claus, the Maccabees, the Three Kings, and elves as much as the next person. But just because it's Christmas or Chanukah or the New Year or Kwaanza doesn't mean you have to have fun. Don't force the hilarity. Look around the room and find one person you love most. You don't even have to talk to that person. Just think about them. Close your eyes and imagine him or her with you on a long walk. Feeling better?

Find a Therapist

Search for a mental health professional near you.

4. Activities. While it's pleasant to sit and eat, it is more pleasant to walk, see a movie, catch some music, or go bowling. This will get your mind off the stress that is swirling like snowflakes around Santa's workshop.

5. The lights. Take the missus or mister and the kids and drive through neighborhoods where houses are brilliantly decked out. See the moving, mechanical reindeer! The talking wreaths! The singing bushes! It's really quite lovely.

6. Sing. Don't fight it. I'm being perfectly serious when I say that you ought to be humming holiday tunes. "White Christmas," "Little Drummer Boy," "Blue Christmas." Your call. There is a reason why so many of these have become jazz standards. Catchy tunes.

7. Exercise. I'm not talking about New Year's resolutions. I assume that you already belong to a gym. In-between scarfing down pies, cakes, and puddings, get on a treadmill. It will brighten your mood.

8. Donate time. Surely there is a shelter or nursing home near you. Drop by and help out or donate goods.

9. Visualize peace. It's not as corny as it sounds. If you play the John & Yoko song, "War Is Over," you'll hear what I mean. The kids chorus in the background clinches the deal. Played backwards, the song is about the breakup of The Beatles, but what we are after here instead is a sense of serenity.

10.  Finally, although the whole holiday season is indeed overwhelming psychologically, with entitlement and disappointment in the cards, try to remember that January and February are quiet and lonely times, more evocative than effervescent. Appreciate your friends and family, they're all any of us got.

Scott Haas, Ph.D., is a clinical psychologist and food writer.

more...

Subscribe to Shrink in the Kitchen

Current Issue

Just Say It

When and how should we open up to loved ones?