Practical Optimism

The Bull x The Horns: How can I stay calm during the holiday season?

Psychologists Art Markman and Bob Duke give advice on how to redirect energy during a stressful season.

Q: I love the holidays, but I also get overwhelmed by everything—the spending, the family obligations, the cultural emphasis on “more, more, more!” By the time it all ends, I’m exhausted and frankly, cynical! What advice do you have to maintain a sense of optimism during “the most wonderful time of the year? 

—Ho Ho Ho Hum

Dear Ho Ho Ho Hum:

It’s interesting to consider the many ways that people respond as they anticipate the holiday season. Some focus on the giving, others on the getting, still others on the doing, and many on combinations of all three. Thinking about and planning for upcoming gatherings and the promise of time with family and friends can bring about a sense of joyful anticipation. Or it can elicit more than a bit of anxious trepidation. Which feelings predominate has a great deal to do with defining what’s important and clarifying your own expectations for what’s to come.

Expectations about the holidays often create feelings of stress because they set a high bar for what’s supposed to happen: a perfectly prepared meal; happy, relaxed conversations; warm reminiscences… It’s certainly not unreasonable to expect many such moments as the holidays unfold, but things almost never go exactly according to plan. Sometimes the main course and your oven don’t cooperate; Uncle Jake really wants to talk politics; and your sister brings up a hurtful experience from childhood.

It’s worth taking a few quiet moments to think about what really matters to you and to the people you care most about. Quiet reflection often reveals that more than a few of your felt responsibilities don’t actually matter that much, to you or to anyone else. Yet they do manage to make the holidays—and perhaps even the thought of the holidays—more stressful.

We feel stress when we are trying to avoid what seems to us like a looming calamity. Stress is in many ways energizing, and each time you cross something off your arms-length list of holiday to-do’s (and potential not-done’s), you feel a little sense of relief at having avoided falling down on the job. Whew. OK. Aunt Gretta’s gift purchased. Check. Although it’s true that a sense of relief is in some ways satisfying, it can’t hold a candle to feelings of joy.

Our holiday greetings convey optimism about the season: “Happy Holidays!” “Merry Christmas!” Wishing for a sense of relief is pretty weak tea: “I hope you get through it!” “See you on the other side!”

The often-self-imposed pressure to make everything extraordinarily, perfectly spectacular can easily obscure all that’s potentially wonderful about the holidays. In fact, it’s possible to lose sight entirely of why you wanted to get together with friends and family at all, even though taking the time to visit with people we care about and take part in rituals and traditions that link us to our past can be a beautiful experience. Family and good friends are often our closest confidants and our most supportive allies.

It’s worth taking a few quiet moments to think about what really matters to you and to the people you care most about.

Holiday gatherings also allow us to mark the passage of time as we watch our friends and loved ones (and ourselves) grow and change. Changes that may be hard to detect day to day often become more apparent when the rituals of our culture bring us together.

We evaluate much of what we experience through comparisons. Joggers tend to compare their current run to previous ones. Purchasers judge whether they got a good deal based not on how much they spent, but on how much they saved compared to the full price (even if nobody ever pays the full price). Stress about upcoming holiday festivities and all that they comprise is often based on comparisons with imagined Norman-Rockwell-worthy perfection, and as you write in your question, “more, more, more.”

One way to create more optimism and greater opportunities for joy is to change the comparison. Rather than measuring your holiday plans and their outcomes against imagined perfection, consider what you plan and what you do in relation to doing nothing at all. Seeing your family is better than not seeing them (we hope). Giving a present is better than not giving one. Getting a present is better than not getting one.

It’s also interesting to consider how many of the things we used to “get to do” turn into things that we now think we “have to do.” That little sleight of verb has a great deal to do with how we view the world and our experiences in it. Rather than defining your responsibilities as a long list of “have-to-do’s,” consider generating a shorter list of “get-to-do’s.”

It is hard to control the reactions of other people, of course, but you can model in your own behavior the way you want other people to think about the holidays. Talk about how excited you are to see everyone. Give people permission not to sweat the details. By taking a more laid-back approach, you may find that you actually bring some Happy back into your Holidays.

We wish you joy and happiness in the days to come.

—Dr. Art Markman and Dr. Bob Duke

The Bull x The Horns advice column is authored by psychologists Art Markman and Bob Duke, hosts of the Two Guys on Your Head podcast. This column represents the advice of Dr. Art Markman and Dr. Bob Duke and not the views or opinions of Frost Bank.

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