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Avoid Doing These Three Things to Enjoy the Holidays

When the holidays feel like a chore, a few simple changes can invite joy.

Key points

  • Stress can sap the joy out of the holidays.
  • Be mindful of defensiveness and reactivity.
  • Remember the real purpose of the holidays, and avoid common pitfalls to maximize happiness.
Natal Sofia/Free Images
Remember when holidays were stress free?
Source: Natal Sofia/Free Images

When I was in the monastery, there was a lot of talk about dukkha, or suffering. This is a key idea that underpins Buddhist practice. In fact, it is so important a concept that it's the first of the Four Noble Truths—that life is basically unsatisfactory and difficult.

So... maybe the Buddha was referring to the holidays? (I'm joking, but he probably would have pointed out ways to reduce suffering during what is intended to be a highly meaningful and life-affirming time.)

While I am in no way a substitute for the Buddha, there are teachings from mindfulness and psychology designed to help us more skillfully navigate the holidays.

Hopefully, the outcome of the ideas here will be greater joy and happiness, not to mention well-being, during what can be a very stressful and challenging time!

Where does holiday stress come from?

Maybe the better question would be: Where doesn't it come from?

There's a lot of anxiety and uncertainty around buying gifts that are in the supply chain (that's a new worry this year); concerns about buying the right gift; anxieties about giving parties, as well as going to parties; worries about wearing the appropriate holiday attire; feelings of dread around navigating those tricky family issues that always crop up, usually at the worst time; unease over unrealistic expectations that we place on ourselves and others around the holidays. And, finally, the need to make the holidays perfect, when they will always be imperfect!

The list goes on and on—especially if you happen to work in customer service at this time of year! The bottom line is clear: All this stress puts our bodies in a vexing state of mental and physical anguish. This happens because the body's sympathetic nervous system gets activated, which puts you into a state of fight, flight, or freeze. Basically, you're disconnected from your thinking brain, and instead of responding, you are reacting.

When your sympathetic system is aroused, your breath grows shallow. Stress hormones flood your body and brain. When you're in this state, it's easy to get defensive. Actually, you will get defensive.

A real-life example of stress-inducing brain hemisphere bias

Recently, I had a conversation with a young man who works at a grocery store. He told me how upset he was that shoppers didn't greet him or look at him. Basically, they just peppered him with snappy questions, like "Where are the artichokes?" and "They moved my cheese. What aisle is the cheese on?"

Well, my explanation to him was simple. "These shoppers are in hunting and gathering mode. In fact," I explained further, "one of the key functions of the brain's left hemisphere is to focus attention and use detail to grasp things!" (If you're interested in an in-depth exploration of the brain's hemispheric functioning, have a look at psychiatrist and philosopher Iain McGilchrist's book The Master and his Emissary.) My advice was for him to take a breath and to recognize that this other person was not ignoring or mistreating him. Rather, this person was just doing what our species has done for thousands of years in order to survive.

Basically, what I was saying to him is advice for interacting with others during the holidays:

Take a nice belly breath. Calm yourself down. Then remind yourself not to take it personally.

A belly breath turns on the body's natural relaxation response and vanquishes that defensive stance. It lets us step outside of our egocentric viewpoint and look at the other person with empathy. After all, aren't all the people we encounter during the holidays experiencing stress?

By not taking things personally, we can cultivate empathy. Then, I added one more bit of advice.

Be kind and helpful to this other person, who is doing their best.

Isn't this really the reason for the holidays? The holidays give us all time to reflect on others, real people who enrich our lives. Holidays are not about the inanimate objects that we can find or manipulate. Holidays invite us to build relationships through each kind of interaction; they ask us to remember our purpose, which is to share and coexist in peace with others.

That said, here is how you can shift from stress to joy this holiday season:

3 things to avoid during the holidays in order to be happier

  1. Avoid letting stress activate your sympathetic nervous system... by using your breath. Be mindful of your stress levels, and take a belly breath to calm down.
  2. Avoid taking things personally... by using empathy. Put yourself in the other person's position with engaged empathy.
  3. Avoid reactivity and defensiveness... by spreading kindness. Spread kindness and joy as a way to rekindle the true purpose of the holidays.

If you don't think these ideas work, try them on for size. The point is that it's hard to be defensive, jealous, angry, or envious of others when you're being kind and grateful. These are incompatible feelings.

One last thought. You may not think you're making a difference with each of these steps, but you are. Each time you show understanding, offer forbearance, or display kindness and gratitude, you are acting as a role model who is tilting the holidays towards compassion. Reflecting on our thoughts and others to cultivate wisdom, as I explain in my book, can help us stay calm and connected throughout the holidays.

What a wonderful holiday gift to wrap up for all.

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