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The Key to Managing Holiday Stress

Replacing rigid expectations with acceptance prepares us for whatever happens.

Key points

  • The holiday season can be a time of joy, but unrealistically high expectations often result in stress and disappointment.
  • Idealized expectations for the holidays emanate from the media, advertising, and Facebook posts.
  • Realistic, flexible expectations enable us to accept and make the best of whatever experiences come our way.

It’s that time of year again, “the holidays”: Thanksgiving, Christmas, Hanukah, Kwanzaa, and the New Year. The holiday season can be the best of times, the worst of times, or something in-between.

More specifically, the holidays are supposed to be wonderful, but they can also be painfully disappointing. Ironically, it is because the holidays are supposed to be the best of times that they can also be the worst. This large distance between the best and worst possible outcomes is a major source of holiday stress.

The real versus the ideal

The key idea here is expectations. We evaluate our experiences by comparing them to our expectations, so the higher these are, the worse our disappointment will be if the anticipations are not met.

Idealized expectations come largely from commercial sources, like Hollywood movies, Hallmark cards, and advertising, which present lovely, glowing pictures of how life supposedly is for many people. These expectations are not our friends when they set us up for disappointment.

It is very difficult to get rid of expectations or to stop comparing our experiences to them because this is how the human mind works. The first strategy to use is developing realistic expectations that mirror the way life is actually lived by people, rather than the way it’s supposed to be.

Google versus Facebook

Research can help us become more realistic. One important study compared the pictures of life that emerged from two very different types of data: Facebook posts and Google searches (Stephens-Davidowitz, 2017). Here’s what was found.

These two data sources paint radically different pictures of the human condition. Facebook posts make life look great. The most common content includes parties, vacations, the beauty of nature, great times at the bar, happy families, comradery with friends, and so forth. Life on Facebook looks like an endless series of good times.

Life looks a lot different when reflected in the mirror of Google searches. There are lots of searches about relationship problems, with the most common searches asking how we can tell if our partners are cheating and what we can do about sexual dysfunction. There are lots of searches related to mental health problems, especially addiction, depression, and anxiety. There are many about medical problems and things related to how our bodies look. I wasn’t surprised to find “how to increase penis size,” but I didn’t expect “male breasts.” When people have worries about themselves, they go to Google.

Stephens-Davidowitz compared how women completed the phrase “my husband is” on Facebook and Google. When he did a word search for this on Facebook, the top five ways to complete the phrase (“My husband is”) were “the best,” “my best friend,” “awesome,” “amazing,” and “so cute.” In Google searches, “awesome” came out in the top five, but the other four terms reflected very different experiences of marriage for these women. These terms included “mean,” “a jerk,” and “annoying”; the last term, “gay,” does not denote a negative characteristic of the husband but, in a marriage to a woman, does reflect a problem.

The title of the book about this research is Everybody Lies. The author said Google searches are like a truth serum for the human race, revealing what we’re really concerned about. My point is not that life is bad, because life is often good—just not as good as the idealized images we project to other people on Facebook; these images then form their impression of how life is for other people and how it ought to be for them, too. It’s like a circular firing squad in which we all project selectively positive images of ourselves to each other, and then we end up feeling inferior when we compare ourselves to all those curated images.

Replacing expectations with acceptance

What does all this have to do with holiday stress? A lot.

High expectations are a major source of holiday stress, and managing these expectations is key to coping and, hopefully, thriving during this time of year. Expectations are most adaptive when they are realistic and flexible, so they accommodate the wide variety of experiences that people actually have.

Most people’s holidays are not like Norman Rockwell paintings, and ours probably won’t be either. Most people’s families include some members whom they don’t like or who have hurt or disappointed them. Family members sometimes disagree bitterly about politics, religion, or COVID vaccination. There are things we are embarrassed about that might come up in the conversation. There are awkward topics that raise our blood pressure when they come up and even when they don’t because we know they might.

Some gatherings are too big and noisy for meaningful connections to occur, and some are so small that they might feel lonely and inadequate. People we wish were there might have other plans or might not value us as much as we value them.

Even if everything is fine objectively, we still might not be in the right mood to have the good time we think we should have. “Should”—that is the word is at the root of most disappointments.

Extensive research associated with Acceptance and Commitment Therapy has found that trying to change negative feelings does not work, and the best policy is to accept these feelings while continuing to seek value in our lives (Hays, Strosahl, & Wilson, 2016). When we let go of rigid expectations, despite our attachment to these beautiful visions, we become more open to all the good things that might come our way, which often differ from what we had in mind. This is why one of the most influential books in the field of positive psychology is called Stumbling on Happiness (Schwartz, 2006).

Replacing expectations with acceptance is the key to managing holiday stress. So let’s all relax the idealized images that, while lovely, might strangle us if we take them too seriously. All sorts of things, good and bad, happen to people every holiday season. The best attitude is an open-minded one in which we hope to have a good time but won’t be shocked if we don’t, and we’re prepared to accept whatever comes our way. This attitude seeks out the good and savors it while coping with disappointment by chalking it up to the complicated, mixed, gritty nature of human life (Shapiro, 2020a; 2020b).


Hayes, S. C., Strosahl, K. D., & Wilson, K. G. (2016). Acceptance and Commitment Therapy, 2nd edition: The process and practice of mindful change. New York: Guilford.

Schwartz, B. (2006). Stumbling on happiness. New York: Random House.

Shapiro, J. (2020a). Finding Goldilocks: A guide for creating balance in personal change, relationships, and politics. Services.

Shapiro, J. (2020b). Psychotherapeutic diagrams: Pathways, spectrums, feedback loops, and the search for balance. Services.

Seth Stephens-Davidowitz, S. (2017). Everybody lies: Big data, new data, and what the Internet can tell us about who we really are. New York: Dey Street Books

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