Home All Happy Holidays… Not Necessarily So

Happy Holidays… Not Necessarily So

written by Lisa Buksbaum 19 December 2017

Lisa Buksbaum, MAPP '13 is CEO & Founder of Soaringwords. She has shared positive interventions with more than 250,000 patients and families and 120,000 employee volunteers. Three experiences with death and illness in her family motivated her to launch Soaringwords, a non-profit organization devoted to inspiring ill children and their families to "Never give up!" Lisa's articles for PositivePsychologyNews.com are here.

This time of year, holiday euphoria bursts into our lives as people whip themselves into a frenzy thicker than the marshmallow topping on a Thanksgiving sweet potato soufflé. Shopping lists, holiday meal plans, and travel logistics loom larger than the giant Christmas tree at Rockefeller Center. At the same time, seasonal depression rates spike. Feelings of melancholy are especially high among millions of families grappling with illness, particularly those with sick children and teens. Instead of spending hours pondering what Chanukah gifts to buy or which stocking stuffer is “perfect” for each person, families experiencing illness focus on getting through each day.

Being bombarded with exuberant holiday music can evoke negative responses from people feeling vulnerable during the holidays. Perfect family holiday tableaux appearing everywhere can make people feel even worse about their current situation. This reaction is what psychologists call social comparison, more commonly known as the “Compare and Despair” Syndrome. Hearing about all the wonderful holiday celebrations can trigger woeful sentiments such as, “Everyone else is feeling exuberant and joyful. What’s wrong with me?”


Dr. Karen Reivich and Dr. Andrew Shatté explain several common thinking traps. Enforced holiday glee triggers the Magnifying and Minimizing Thinking Trap where a person magnifies the negative aspects of a situation and minimizes the positive aspects. Maximizing could sound something like, “Mark is so weak now, I feel like our family will NEVER be able to enjoy holiday celebrations again…”

Look at how things are framed

We can self-sooth by analyzing the triggers of powerful negative emotions, looking at the facts, and understanding the underlying thinking. This can reduce the painful emotions the next time a trigger occurs. This thought process is called Re-framing.

As one example, let’s think about hospitalized children and their family members. They can look beyond the painful aspects of an illness in order to appreciate the special, often awe-inspiring, moments that also happen. They might reframe a difficult situation by focusing on small but often heroic acts of progress taken in recovery, choosing hope and resilience instead of despair. When they appreciate a kind gesture from a nurse or hospital volunteer, experiencing the goodness in another person with no ulterior motive except to make them feel supported, that’s re-framing done by accepting something good even in the midst of hardship.

Why Does the Holiday Season Make People Feel Anxious and Downtrodden?

Perhaps the best example of a holiday that triggers social comparison and motivates people to fall into negative thinking traps is New Year’s Eve: the only holiday that bridges the old and new years.

New Year’s Eve brings impossible-to-achieve expectations that Everybody (note the capital “E”) is having a rip-roarin’ great time. These super-sized expectations generate anticipatory stress that the holidays should be happy, happy, happy, just like in the movies. Social media plays a large role in increasing social comparison. In a radio show about social media, Barbara Kahn, a researcher studying decision-making at the University of Pennsylvania, stated that social media generates a lot of FOMO: Fear Of Missing Out. FOMO is another way people experience the false belief that “Everyone is having a better time than I am.”

Five Simple Things You Can Do to Reduce “Happy Holiday” Burn-Out

If you or someone you know is going through any kind of major challenge during this holiday season you might want to read these five easy actions to help reduce holiday stress. Better yet, share this post with your friends and family and then figure out something simple that you can do together to make the holidays meaningful. I have included links to more instructions for some of the activities in the reference list.

Enjoy a flower

  1. This is the perfect time to PRACTICE SELF-COMPASSION, or even to give someone else permission to put his or her self-interest first, by confidently saying “NO” to invitations or plans that seem overwhelming. Simply explain that you and your family are not able to attend the family’s annual holiday tradition this year, or remember that “No” is a complete sentence.
  2. Choose activities that are calming and cozy. Instead of focusing on what you and your family are NOT able to do during the holidays, it can be refreshing and even fun to do something different. If you do a movie night, pick comedies and films with upbeat stories.

    Just desserts

    Perhaps a scaled-down holiday meal where everyone comes in their PJs would be fun or a holiday get-together where everyone eats desserts first. You could even have a get-together where you ONLY SERVE DESSERTS, eliminating hours of preparation and expense.
  3. Reading a gratitude letter

  4. Incorporate rituals that add meaning and joy. Last year my dad’s health was declining significantly, and I wanted to do something positive to counter the sadness we were all experiencing. Prior to Thanksgiving, I sent everyone in my family a package with six blank cards and envelopes inviting them to participate in the First Annual Post-Thanksgiving Family Gratitude Circle. The instructions were simple: each person wrote a gratitude letter to each person in our family. During Friday night dinner the day after Thanksgiving, each person brought a stack of six sealed envelopes to the table. Starting with my mother, we went around the table as each person in the family read his or her gratitude Letter to the designated relative. Laughs and tears reverberated around the table. It was a heart-felt, beautiful experience, a gift that exceeded the value of anything that could have been purchased in a store.
  5. Dark time of the year

  6. Holidays don’t have to be observed on a certain day even if this has always been a time-honored family tradition spanning decades. When illness is part of the reality, sometimes people have to be flexible to accommodate a new normal. Perhaps some members of the family will leave the hospital in order to attend the annual meal while others will stay back with the person who is not able to make it to this year’s celebration. Other families experience tremendous relief by postponing their family gatherings. This decision to take a rain check reduces stress for everyone. It can also give people something to look forward to at a future date.
  7. It’s no accident that Chanukah and Christmas occur during the darkest time of the year when the days are shortest around the Winter Solstice. During this bleak time, it’s possible to remember that there are always others who are less fortunate than you are. Opening yourself up to empathy and kindness reduces feelings of distress and isolation. The best way to transform feelings of despair into feelings of meaning and purpose is to embrace the needs of another person. According to Adam Grant, when you take a simple action to lift the spirits of another person it also elevates your own well-being. That’s why we’ve built pay-it-forward activities into all of the Soaringwords’ programs we have shared with more than 500,000 children, teens and families over the past sixteen years. So whether you’re busy counting the days until the holidays officially begin… or whether you’re focusing all of your energy on positive, healthy outcomes for you or someone in your family, here are three wonderful ways to share some joy with hospitalized children, teens, and families this holiday season.

      Soaring Super Heros

    • SoaringSuperhero Message and Artwork: Strength and greatness is inside of everyone. When you create a superhero message and artwork to donate to an ill child, it reminds him or her that they too have superpowers such as being strong, creative, funny, or kind. You can use your strengths to inspire children to “Never give up!”
    • SOARING Gratitude Ladder:
      Gratitude opens your heart and inspires you to give back to others. Gratitude is about joy and appreciation of simple things that happen daily. Sometimes it is easy to take these things for granted. When you create a Gratitude Ladder for someone, you will be giving them an incredible gift highlighting what you appreciate most about them.
    • SoaringLove Message:
      When you love someone or something it makes you feel really happy so your heart expands with joy. Many different cultures have LOVE
      symbols to communicate this powerful positive feeling. Some native Americans consider the hummingbird to be a symbol of love. In China, the maple leaf shows the sweetness of love. In Norway and Iceland, the harp symbolizes love. Hinduism and Roman Mythology consider the shell a love symbol, while American Sign Language has the “I Love You” sign. You are invited to make a special SoaringLove message and artwork to give to a hospitalized child to brighten his day or you can surprise someone in your family by making a message just for them.

    Call to action: Give your project to someone special such as your mom, dad, brother, sister, friend, nurse, doctor, or a child in the hospital.



Grant, Adam. (2013). Give and Take: A Revolutionary Approach to Success. Viking Press.

Neff, K. D. (2011). Self-Compassion: Stop Beating Yourself Up and Leave Insecurity Behind. New York: HarperCollins.

Reivich, K, & Shatt?, A. (2002). The Resilience Factor: 7 Keys to Finding Your Inner Strength and Overcoming Life’s Hurdles. New York: Broadway Books.

Vedantam, S. (2017, May 2). Why Social Media Isn’t Always Very Social. National Public Radio Morning Edition.

How to create and share SoaringGratitude Letters at your family’s holiday celebration

How to send SoaringLove Messages for someone special

How to create a Gratitude Ladder

How to create a Soaring Superhero

Photo Credit: Flickr via Compfight with Creative Commons licenses
Tree in front of Rockefeller Center courtesy of Prayitno / Thank you for (12 millions +) view
How things get framed courtesy of Lydia Brooks
Enjoying a flower courtesy of Matt Seppings
Holiday cookies courtesy of JL7978
Dark time of year courtesy of hugovk
Reading the gratitude letter and Soaring Superheros both courtesy of Soaringwords

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1 comment

Judy Krings 20 December 2017 - 6:24 pm

Thanks ever so much dear Lisa. Terrific ideas, and I specially resonated with self compassion during these very busy times for so many of us. I am grateful to you and all of the other PPND writers for your inspirations all year long. Peace, calm, and meaning this holiday season, and Happy New Year, too.


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