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Fulfillment during the holidays: Challenging but possible

Stressed out by the holidays? Here's how to make them fulfilling.

Today on facebook, a friend of mine shared the following observation: "How is it Thanksgiving already? Didn't this year just start? Where does the time go? Last time I blinked, I was 20 years old - and now I'm closing in on 40." Of course, 40 is not really all that old, especially considering that 40 is the "new 20" (so they say). However, this comment brings up a common experience that people have during the holiday season- namely, is it possible that a year has gone by so fast?

Some psychologists believe that as we get older, time seems to go by more quickly, and indeed, considering that each year is proportionately less of our lives the older we get, it's an understandable feeling. Holidays, birthdays (especially decade markers), class reunions, and anniversaries all tick off the markers of time and cause us to wonder where it is all going.

Rather than despair about the fleeing of time, though, we can use the holidays in other ways to benefit our well-being and al

low us to feel more fulfilled. For many people, the holidays are a wonderful opportunity to get together with the people who mean the most to us and even though we may have aged one year since the last ones, it's a time to cherish and enjoy these times.

We can also use the holidays to feel more fulfilled if we use the rituals associated with family meals and traditions as ways to reconnect with the experiences from our past. Rolling out the pie dough may remind you of the lessons you learned from an older relative who gave you special insight into how to avoid disaster (be sure to put enough flour on the rolling pin). Turning to the family recipe book may also remind you of the aunt who could fry up a slew of perfectly browned latkes in no time flat. There is also great continuity across the generations in these simple holiday chores. Perhaps you recall seeing a parent or family friend getting ready to carve the holiday turkey or ham. Now you are the one who is doing the carving and it is your younger family members watching you who themselves will someday step into this role.

There are also the physical trappings associated with the holidays that may reconnect us with experiences in the long-ago past. As you take out the special tablecloth, scrape the wax out of the menorah, or dig out the tree ornaments from the cardboard box, stop and reflect on the memories associated with them. Perhaps these memories only go back a year or two and you think about something that changed drastically since then- a parent has died, a grandchild was born, you moved to a new city. But you may also find yourself drifting back further into your recollections, reminiscing about how much you and your baby sister fought over who would get to hang up the Snow White ornament. Many of these objects have special meaning unlike the more mundane trappings of our daily lives. Washing the breakfast dishes each morning most likely doesn't send you off into dreams of your youth.

We all know that the holidays also bring with them a great deal of potential for stress. There's a great deal to do in a short span of time and even though you can now buy your holiday decorations in August, or so it seems, the end of the year brings with it many opportunities for overwork, overexposure to relatives, and overindulgence. Economic hardship is adding to the stress as is the greater hardship of travel. How can you possibly find fulfillment when you are on the go 24/7 trying to get everything done?

Fortunately, as we get older, we are better able to budget our time and are much more efficient at completing holiday tasks that at one point in our lives were completely daunting. Research shows that older adults are better at regulating their emotions and coping with stressful events. They are able to use their years of experience and can complete tasks in an instant that take the novice considerably longer. That pie-baking relative of your could probably slap the dough on a board, whip out that rolling pin and slather it in flour, and then shape it into a perfect circle, ready for filling before you, as a teen or 20 year old, could even set the oven for preheating. So although you may have more tasks to complete, with each passing year you can rely more and more heavily on the expertise you've acquired to get more done in less time. Stopping once in a while to pause about these family traditions is time you can now well afford to spend.

There are other causes of stress during the holidays. This season, stress about the economy and the cost of presents for our nearest and dearest is weighing heavily on people's minds. Although I am not a consumer blogger, I can offer a bit of advice here-- adding email alerts about sales and discounts in your inbox instead of relegating them to spam can give you some valuable savings. The other day, I was at Old Navy and two late middle-aged women each had huge armfuls of fleece scarves that they were buying for 70 cents apiece. Finding specials like these can make your gift dollars go a very long way. Wrapping even small items in separate packages can also help stretch your holiday funds. Opening a present, no matter how small the gift inside, still can bring happiness to almost every recipient (and if not, then maybe they're not people you should worry about!). The fact that you took the time to shop for the gift and, as important, the time to wrap it, can bring cheer. Here again, as you get older, your ability to evaluate when a deal is truly a deal can make you a wiser gift-giver.

During the holidays, people also suffer a great deal of avoidable stress by adopting poor eating and drinking habits, skipping their exercise regimes, and failing to take care of their own health. Make sure that you find time in your day to engage in some form of physical activity. Even if you don't have time for the gym, you can do simple exercises at home such as push-ups, situps, and stretching. Using your body in an active way will boost your endorphins and take the edge off some of that stress.


Returning to the initial point of my entry this week, though, I'd like to focus on the idea of fulfillment during the holiday season. My research has shown that people who are able to give of themselves and feel that they are making a difference in the world are happier and more fulfilled. Taking time during the holidays to help out at a local shelter, foodbank, or soup kitchen can go a long way toward making you feel better as well as providing valuable services to those who are in need. If you aren't able to spend your holidays with family, consider volunteering to serve others. The NBC series, "Making a Difference" provides inspiring examples of how we all can help others during tough economic times.

If you've tried all of these strategies and still feel that something is missing, you can try some of the methods recommended in my book, The Search for Fulfillment. There I show practical ways that you can take the dissatisfaction you are feeling with your life now and get onto a pathway leading to greater happiness and satisfaction with your life. There is no reason for you to let each passing year cause you to regret lost opportunities or ache for what could have been. Instead, you can reshape your life and find the path that will lead to a more rewarding life.

Meanwhile, enjoy the holiday season and good luck rolling out that pie dough!

Follow me on Twitter @swhitbo for daily updates on psychology, health, and aging. Feel free to join my Facebook group, "Fulfillment at Any Age," to discuss today's blog, or to ask further questions about this posting. 

Copyright Susan Krauss Whitbourne, Ph.D. 2009 References:

Hardy, S. E., Concato, J., & Gill, T. M. (2004). Resilience of community-dwelling older persons. Journal of the American Geriatrics Society, 52, 257-262.

Staudinger, U. M., & Kunzmann, U. (2005). Positive adult personality development: Adjustment and/or growth? European Psychologist, 10, 320-329.