Many people look forward to the holiday season throughout the entire year. Children count down the days, and adults often plan events months and months in advance.
However, all of this anticipation is a double-edged sword, and it's an unfortunate truth that the time of year expected and advertised to be the most joyous and celebrated can often times end up being the most stressful and disappointing.
In this two-part article, we’ll first try to gain some perspective on the holiday season, and break down the reasons why the holidays are challenging, what factors are at play in staying balanced during the holidays, and what research has to say about what really matters.
In part two, we’ll move on to specific strategies that you can follow in order to make this holiday season all about joy, and not about stress.
We'll begin by breaking down some of the challenges that arise during the holidays.
Challenges Associated with the Holiday Season
Human beings are creatures of habit. During a large part of the year, most of us settle into very comfortable and staid routines.
Of course spontaneity is important, and there is a degree of truth in the old adage that variety is the spice of life, but maintaining positive, healthy habits is also very valuable. Routine keeps us oriented, it helps us manage stress, and it ensures that through constant, steady effort, we will eventually reach our goals.
One of the primary difficulties of the holiday season, therefore, is how much these routines can be altered. For parents with children, having the kids home from school for a period of multiple weeks is a major blessing, on the one hand, and a huge disruption of routine on the other hand.
When routines get disrupted, little tasks fall through the cracks. When little tasks fall through the cracks, a feeling of disorientation can arise, as though you are constantly forgetting something. When these feelings surface, they can lead to stress. And with a high level of stress, things like self-care, exercise, and other routine-oriented tasks get lost, completing the vicious cycle.
But this difficulty is only on the personal level. On the interpersonal level, the holiday season can bring about a large number of different expectations on your time and energy.
Children at different ages require more or less attention in order to have an enjoyable experience. Parents, siblings, and extended family members can push too hard for the fulfillment of one tradition or another. Groups including churches, service organizations, and even workplaces often schedule time commitments that they wouldn't otherwise.
And to compound all of these various challenges, the holidays are also the time of year when there is the least amount of sunlight, the most dangerous weather (depending on your location), the most delays because of traffic or weather, and often times the most sickness.
With all of these practical challenges, it can be hard to remember what's truly important. Let's take a look at what research has to say on the topic.
The Holidays Are About Meaning and Community, Not Consumerism
While it may seem strange to think about the holiday season from an academic perspective, one of the things that research helpfully does is organize information in such a way to make things that we already knew seem fresh and interesting.
In this way, considering what researchers have to say about the holiday season helps to orient us towards what's really important.
One study published in the Journal of Happiness Studies surveyed a variety of different people in a town in the Midwestern United States. The study specifically focused on Christmas, and asked participants to fill out several different questions about their Christmas experiences while also measuring things like life satisfaction, well-being, and stress.
The researchers demonstrated that the more materialistic aspects of the Christmas tradition were essentially unrelated to happiness or well-being. In fact, the researchers went so far as to explicitly state: “Despite the fact that people spend relatively large portions of their income on gifts, as well as time shopping for and wrapping them, such behavior apparently contributes little to holiday joy.”
On the other hand, the researchers found that individuals who spent time with family and engaged in religious activities reported greater overall well-being during the holidays. The researchers conjectured that this is because both of these activities often lead to a greater sense of interpersonal relatedness, as well as a greater sense of meaningfulness in life, both of which are well-established predictors of overall happiness.
So, once again: this particular study doesn't exactly tell you anything that you didn't already know. However, it is always helpful to be reminded that what really matters during the holiday season is investing time in family and community.
The Holidays Are a Challenge, and Should Be Treated as Such
With this understanding of what truly matters during the holiday season in mind, it becomes apparent how many things are tangent to these goals but can nonetheless come to dominate.
With challenges like sickness, scheduling, weather, traffic, and of course the entire web of interpersonal difficulties arising from having lots of different people with lots of different expectations, there's no doubt that it's difficult to keep what's truly important in mind.
The first step in any difficult task is always admitting to the challenge; without taking on the difficulty it is impossible to successfully rise above it.
But just because something is challenging doesn't mean it isn't enjoyable or rewarding. Thinking about the holidays as a challenge to be overcome doesn't cheapen the experience at all. As anyone who has planned a wedding knows, some of the most enjoyable and memorable days of our entire lives are also among the most challenging to prepare and to pull off.
So in conclusion, now that we've committed to taking on the challenge of having a happy holiday season this year, in Part 2 of this article we will discuss specific strategies you can use to accomplish this goal.
Kasser, T., & Sheldon, K. M. (2002). What makes for a merry Christmas? Journal of Happiness Studies, 3(4), 313-329.