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Happy Holidays? 6 Ways to Get There

Research-tested strategies for feeling the joy of the holiday season.

Snow angel, photo by Dale Chumbley

Photo by Dale Chumbley

“Tis the season to be jolly”—but isn’t that always easier said than done? While the holidays of course bring us many joys—family reunions, good food, thoughtful gifts—they also entail an incredible amount of stress: Those family reunions can dredge up old family conflicts, the good food often requires lots of careful preparation, and holiday shopping can be a nightmare. So how can we stay grounded and present and truly let ourselves feel the holiday spirit?

Though the next gadget or experience may bring fleeting pleasure, research shows that genuine happiness is about how we feel inside. To really enjoy the holidays, try these simple, research-based practices that will help keep you in a healthy state of mind.

1. Set your intention to enjoy the holidays as much as you can. By making the conscious decision to open yourself to true well-being and happiness, you’ll be more likely not to miss those uplifting moments and even begin to have your radar out for them. Psychiatrist Dan Siegel argues that by setting your intention, you “prime” your brain to be ready for positive experiences. And this can spur a positive cycle of happiness: Research by psychologist Barbara Fredrickson shows that when we allow ourselves to feel positive emotions, we become more open and sensitive to future positive experiences, bringing us even more of those good feelings down the line.

2. Savor any moments of well-being when they’re here. Don’t just know that you’re feeling good. Let your awareness savor how the experience registers in your body and mind for 15 or 30 seconds. (Neuropsychologist Rick Hanson calls this “taking in the good.”) Research by Fred Bryant, a professor of psychology at Loyola University, has found that savoring positive experiences strengthens our positive response to them. And neuroscience studies have shown that the longer we hold an emotionally stimulating experience in our awareness, the more neural connections form in our brains to strengthen the trace of that experience in our memory.

3. Take a break, regain your focus. If you’re feeling overwhelmed by everything on your To Do list, remember to take a few breaths. Take a break and enjoy a cup of tea or a hot bath. Try some yoga or exercise. Or get out of the doing mode for a little while and let yourself just relax. It can be challenging to disengage from the clutch of activity and connect with the moment in a restful way. But research suggests that it’s worth the effort to slow down and regain your focus: A recent study out of Harvard found that a wandering mind—typical in our multitasking culture—is a strong cause of unhappiness.

People who expressed gratitude to others felt significantly closer to those people afterward.

4. Practice gratitude. Don’t take your good fortune for granted. Consciously reflect on all the blessings in your life each day. Express your appreciation directly to loved ones and friends when you’re with them. You and they will both feel the joy of loving connection. In a study by Martin Seligman, a leader in the field of positive psychology, people who considered themselves severely depressed were asked to write down three good things that happened each day for 15 days. At the end of the experiment, 94 percent of these subjects had a decrease in depression and 92 percent said their happiness increased. A study published earlier this year in the journal Psychological Science found that people who expressed gratitude to others felt significantly closer to those people afterward.

5. Practice generosity. Neuroscience research shows that performing an altruistic act lights up the same pleasure centers in the brain as food and sex! Whenever you feel the impulse to be generous, act on it. As you do, notice the expansive feelings in your body and mind. Without expecting anything in return, notice how good it feels inside when you see someone happy because of your sincere generosity. It can be as simple and profound as being fully present for a friend, sharing the gift of your caring and attention. Or when you open the door for someone, consider the positive impulse behind that act. Anytime you do something that contributes to the well-being of another, let yourself feel the joy of generosity. And be sure to include yourself in your generosity practice.

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6. Play and have fun. Remember what it was like when you were a kid during the holidays? Let yourself experience that again. Be around kids if you can. Tune into and take delight in their enthusiasm. Singing or dancing are excellent ways to get out of your head and open to joy. As David Elkind, author of The Power of Play, writes, “Decades of research has shown that play is crucial to physical, intellectual, and social emotional development at all ages.”

Finally, remember that happiness is contagious: Research shows that happiness can spread like a virus across three degrees of separation; if you’re happy, you increase the odds that your close friends and family will be happy, too. So the more you can stay connected to your own happiness, the more you help others get in touch with their own well-being. We all benefit when you can awaken the joy within you. Happy Holidays!


James Baraz originally wrote this article for Greater Good, the UC Berkeley-based magazine that covers  research into the roots of compassion, happiness, and altruism. It is republished through a special collaboration with YES! Magazine, a national, nonprofit media organization that fuses powerful ideas with practical actions. James is a co-founder of the Spirit Rock Meditation Center and is the co-author (with Shoshana Alexander) of Awakening Joy: 10 Steps that Will Put You on the Road to Real Happiness. His websites are www.awakeningjoy.info and www.jamesbaraz.com.

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