It’s OK If Winter Makes You Sad

Four scientific strategies for an emotionally authentic holiday season.
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Whoever wrote “The Most Wonderful Time of the Year” never had to endure a night of Hanukkah listening to their right-wing cousin rail against communism. Or had to make dinner for two dozen family members, who each has his own unique set of food (and family) intolerances. Or had to spend an entire Christmas alone while cheers and laughter erupted from the apartment down the hall.

Fortunately, psychological research suggests some effective strategies for the holiday blues—and flags some especially unhelpful ones. The upshot is that sadness and other tough emotions are not afflictions that we should try to avoid or overcome. Instead, if properly understood, they can help contribute to a healthy—and happy—life. 

Here are four strategies to help you craft your own happiness recipe this holiday season (and the rest of your year).

 1. Don’t force cheer.

At family gatherings with cousins you secretly can’t stand and in-laws who dole out backhanded compliments, it can be tempting to put on a happy face while you seethe inside. Indeed, that might even seem like the most mature response—no drama, no conflict.

But a 2011 study by researchers at Michigan State University and West Point might make you think twice. They followed dozens of bus drivers for two weeks, looking to see when they flashed fake versus genuine smiles at their passengers. (Bus drivers do a lot of smiling, it turns out.) The results show that on days when the drivers tried to put on an act and fake a good mood, their actual moods got worse. This was especially true for women.

Similarly, a 2012 study led by Maya Tamir of the Hebrew University of Jerusalem found that people who wanted to feel happy even when a situation called for a different emotional response, like anger, actually reported less happiness overall. And research by Iris Mauss of UC Berkeley suggests that people who really want to be happy actually derive less happiness from positive experiences, apparently because their expectations are too high. Again and again, trying to force happiness seems to backfire.

 2. Don’t suppress sadness.

The results of the bus driver study can be explained by researchers Oliver John of UC Berkeley and James Gross of Stanford, who found that “negative” feelings like sadness or anger only intensify when we try to suppress them. That’s because we feel bad about ourselves when our outward appearance contradicts how we truly feel inside. We don’t like to be inauthentic.

When we suppress emotions like sadness, we deny them the important function they can serve in our lives.

What’s more, when we suppress emotions like sadness, we deny them the important function they can serve in our lives. Sadness can signal that something is distressing us; if we don’t recognize that feeling, we might not take the necessary steps to improve our situation.

Expressing our sadness can also elicit comfort and compassion from those who care about us, strengthening our bonds. By contrast, suppressing our emotions can actually undermine our relationships: A study led by Sanjay Srivastava of the University of Oregon found that college students who bottled up their emotions experienced less social support, felt less close to others, and were less satisfied with their social lives.

 3. Respond mindfully.

But none of this is to endorse drowning in melancholy or lashing out at our in-laws. Some ways of processing and acting on our emotions are healthier than others.

Recently, scientists have been paying special attention to the benefits of mindfulness, the moment-by-moment awareness of our thoughts, feelings, and surroundings. A mindful response to an emotional trigger (e.g., overcooking the holiday turkey) means that you pause rather than react. Instead of berating yourself, you simply notice what you’re feeling without judging that response as right or wrong. 

Studies suggest that a mindful response to a negative event reduces the amount of sadness we experience after that event, is associated with less depression and anxiety, and may even carry physiological benefits, like lowering our heart rates. It’s a way to avoid suppressing your emotions without reacting hastily or getting consumed by rumination. And, fortunately, mindfulness isn’t something you’re simply born with or without; research suggests it’s a skill you can cultivate over time. 

 4. Enjoy your emotional cocktail.

Inevitably, the holidays will bring a mix of highs and lows. Perhaps the most important lesson to keep in mind is that this variety of emotions might be the best thing possible for your overall well-being. 

Inevitably, the holidays will bring a mix of highs and lows.

That was the key insight from a study published last year by a team of researchers from Yale, Harvard Business School, and other institutions spanning four countries. Their survey of more than 37,000 people found that those who experienced more “emodiversity”—a greater variety and abundance of emotions—were less likely to be depressed than people who reported high levels of positive emotion. In fact, people with more emodiversity used less medication, visited the doctor less frequently, spent fewer days in the hospital, practiced better dietary and exercise habits, and smoked less.

In other words, sadness, anger, and other difficult emotions are like so many other staples of the holidays, from egg nog to office parties: In moderation, they’re nothing to fear. Just make sure you’re balancing them with other, lighter experiences. And don’t forget to give yourself a break.

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