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How to Find Peace and Happiness this Holiday Season

Six scientific ways to have a mindful holidays

As we move into December, the days get darker and the nights begin to sparkle with twinkly lights. The sight and smell of peppermint lattes, candy canes, and gingerbread fill the air and the store windows sparkle with snowflakes and red velvety displays. We rush around buying warm, cosy presents and wrapping them with silver ribbons and bright red bows. We get out the recipe books and begin making candy cane bark or peppermint patties. We drink cider and sing carols or light menorahs and eat crispy potato pancakes. We make plans to get together with family and friends, make shopping lists, and start clearing the clutter. We drink champagne and at the holiday party and go skating in the city square. Is this what happiness looks like? Maybe…..

In reality, the holidays are often a mixed bag. Peak moments of joy, celebration, and loving connection. mixed with lots of daily grind, bills, and traffic. So how do we stay merry and bright while avoiding too much disappointment, regret, and burnout. The science of Positive Psychology holds the key! The six science-backed tips below can serve as your emotional roadmap, helping you make conscious and mindful choices for lasting happiness, rather than getting too caught up in the holiday highs and lows.

Have Reasonable Expectations

There is a famous saying that what messes us up is the vision in our mind of how things are supposed to be. In reality, the scenes of our lives are not pages taken from Pottery Barn or Abercrombie catalogs. While beautiful and poignant to look at, catalogs and TV ads are designed to create an idealized fantasy in order to sell you products you may not really need. What you see in the ads isn’t really what you get. That jacket may be fleecy and cosy or jeans sexy, but the loving family or attentive boyfriend aren’t included in the price tag! And the momentary high we get from a new purchase doesn’t last. Through hedonic adaptation, we quickly get used to the new normal and start looking around for the next big thing.

Maintain Equanimity

Equanimity is a concept from Buddhist philosophy that means staying steady - not grasping too hard to feel pleasure or avoid pain. According to the Buddha, attachment (to objects or experiences) creates emotional suffering because we fear losing them, we get greedy and want more and more, or we lose sight of what is really important in life. Neuroscience shows that our brains' motivation and reward system, governed by dopamine, can get conditioned to crave not only drugs and alcohol, but even shopping or sex, leading to obsessive preoccupation and neglect of healthy routines and relationships. So take a reality check and if the happiness you’re feeling is the addictive kind, it’s time to take a step back.

Focus on Lasting Meaning Rather Than Temporary Happiness

Happiness is a temporary mood state that can’t be achieved just by willing it. In reality, about 48 per cent of our happiness is determined by our genetic makeup and another large portion by recent life experiences. So only a small piece of happiness is under our control. Trying not to think about the negative may actually make things worse. Research shows that trying not to think about something can actually make us thing about it more. Just spend 5 minutes trying not to think about a pink elephant and you’ll see what I mean! Rather than trying to make ourselves happy, we will have more success trying to live a meaningful life. Once you decide what is really meaningful to you this holiday season, whether it’s loved ones, work success, creativity, or helping others, you can consciously devote your time and energy to these pursuits. Spending time pursuing meaningful goals can make you more grounded amid the inevitable ups and downs of the holiday franticness. For more on how meaning is better than happiness, read here.

Practice Gratitude

The part of happiness that we can control is about what we choose to focus on. We can consciously direct the way we focus our attention onto the good things in our lives. This doesn’t mean shutting out the negative. We can’t get rid of sad feelings or negative thoughts, but we can acknowledge them and then redirect focus back to what we have that makes us grateful. Research shows we can lean the capacity to be grateful and that doing so improves our health and relationships. Researcher Robert Emmons and colleagues found that teaching college students to practice gratitude increased their optimism, health, and life satisfaction. Being grateful for our health makes us more conscious that we need to take care of it and not mindlessly damage it with addictive behaviors or a diet of fast food and caffeine. What are you most grateful for this holiday season and how can you express this gratitude in your daily life? Writing cards, giving gifts, volunteeering, or writing a gratitude diary can all help make gratitude a part of your daily life. For more on how to write a gratitude diary and other ways to enhance gratitude, read here.

“Tis the Season of Giving

As the weather gets colder, we feel lucky to be able to shut out the cold winds, sleet, and rain as we take shelter in our warm homes. At this time of year, our thoughts may naturally go to those amongst us who don’t have warm homes or who can’t afford warm food and clothing. Holiday Food and Toy Drives abound and a plethora of bell-ringing, Santa-clad collectors hover in supermarket entrances. While sometimes this can be intrusive, research shows that giving can benefit the giver as well as the receiver. Harvard business school professor Michael I. Norton has shown in a series of studies that spending money on others makes us happier than keeping it for ourselves, even if the giving is mandated. The types of giving ranged from giving a portion of end of year bonuses to spending $5.00 a day on somebody else. Giving to others makes us feel good about ourselves and if we give to people we know, we may get a piece of the pleasure they receive via our brain’s mirror neurons.

Create Memorable Experiences

While we may be tempted by the array of shiny new things abounding on the shelves of our local shopping malls, research by Cornell Psychology Professor Thomas Gilovich and colleagues suggests that we get more lasting happiness from experiences than new possessions. We tend to savor and think about positive experiences more. (Remember that vacation in Hawaii…) We talk about these experiences to others and look at photographs of them, which make us feel happier. We may think of these experiences as being related to our values or life’s dreams, which makes them more meaningful. So if you have a limited budget, organize a holiday gathering with homemade gifts or food or spend your money on a trip to maximize your bang for the buck.

Wishing all of my readers a mindful and meaningful holiday season. I am deeply grateful for your support of my work and for giving of your precious time to read my writing. I am grateful to Psychology Today for the opportunity to share my ideas with a wide audience and grateful to New Harbinger Publishers for my new book contract.

About the Author

Melanie Greenberg, Ph.D. is a Psychologist in Mill Valley, California, and expert on mindfulness, emotions, neuroscience, and behavior, Dr Greenberg provides workshops and speaking engagements for organizations, life coaching, and psychotherapy for individuals and couples. She regularly appears on radio shows, and as an expert source in national media.

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