‘Tis the season to give and get. This is the explicit message of the many advertisements that propel us into hypnotic holiday spending. Are your halls decked? Is your closet filled with hot fashions? Will you be giving your children the “it” gift this year? Will this be the best set of holiday celebrations ever? Have you gotten the best bargains at the season’s most fantastic sales? Or are you feeling stressed already despite less than a month till the chaos is over? Are you worried about the cost, the waste, and the pressure?
Positive Psychology has a lot to say about sustaining your well-being during the celebration of holidays, as well as helping you to discover how to be happy about your choices. Don’t let consumer culture decrease your happiness as you jog along the hedonic treadmill of life during the next few weeks.
Here are some Positive Psychology research-based tips on how to have a sustainably happy holiday.
1. Avoid basing happiness on acquiring particular circumstances or objects (e.g., buy a new HDTV, plan a luxury vacation, or move to a favorite community), because we tend to habituate to factors once they become circumstances of our lives. Remember to appreciate (savor) or actively engage with the object or circumstance since this may directly counteract the effects of hedonic adaptation. In this way, make the object or circumstance have meaning. Yes, this means the joy of fabulous hors d’oeurvres, yummy mixed drinks, and decadent desserts wears off.
So does the thrill of that “new car smell” or the luxurious feel of a cashmere sweater.
Even the superfast computer seems slow awfully soon. Unfortunately, these pleasures can wear away much more quickly than calories or credit card balances!
2. Whenever possible, pursue meaningful personal goals (Sheldon & Elliot; Latham), either in the service of personal achievements, or in the service of the needs of others. Sheldon and Lyubomirsky found that goal-based activities first boost well-being, and then help maintain it at a higher level if a person remains successful in goal-oriented activities. This can result in a cascading series of positive experiences that help maintain well-being.
Seligman et.al. found that when you use your VIA strengths in new ways, it led to lasting happiness. Choose to use your strengths in ways that feel meaningful to you. Remember that other people matter (Peterson). Try values-based gift-giving like donating your time, talent or treasure to a charity in someone else’s name. Help build a home with Habitat for Humanity. Buy a llama for the Heifer project. Use your network of connections to create the perfect day for a child at Make-A-Wish. Broaden your “green” giving to incorporate other people’s happiness, too.
3. Remember the importance of effective effort. No matter how creative your thinking is, you’ll need to initiate the activity and take action, as well as to actually carry out and maintain the activity. Activate your executive functions. In Muraven and Baumeister’s terms, remember that self-regulatory will is like a “muscle,” with limited capacity over time. You’ll need to build it up as well as use it strategically to avoid fatiguing your will. You may find that you are focusing much of your effort on what you are not going to do (overeat, get into arguments, overspend, over decorate, complain, succumb to peer pressure…). Reframe those into what’s positive (eat healthily, listen well, spend responsibly, decorate tastefully, savor, be authentic…)
4. If you do receive the gift you really want, practice gratitude to enhance not only your well-being but also that of the person or people you thank (Emmons & McCullough; Seligman, et.al,). Robert Emmons has some great information about gratitude in Thanks!: How the New Science of Gratitude Can Make You Happier. Grateful thinking promotes the savoring of positive life experiences and situations. It’s so good you’ll want to try it after the holidays, too. In addition, gratitude increases your energy and optimism, and decreases your stress and depression. It’s a perfect match for holiday madness. Try a gratitude journal or write a gratitude letter. Sincere thank you cards are great, too. Try e-cards with a personalized message. Generate a smile without generating waste.
5. Are you anticipating that you’ll receive the worst gift ever from someone? Remember it’s ok to take something back if your gift is disappointing to you—no need to wear or display; or pass the gift on to someone else who loves Chia Pets; or donate it to someone who needs a faux fleece arm chair throw more than you. In what way does it offend? Does it violate your Signature Strengths? Perhaps it’s ugly and you have “Appreciation of Beauty and Excellence” But maybe Aunt Zelda does not. Does it challenge your sense of meaning and purpose? Perhaps it is the epitome of wastefulness in a world that needs sustainable everything. Alas, you will be happier and less angry, too, if you forgive gift-giving transgressors (McCullough, Pargament, & Thoresen). Do be careful, however, whom you choose to forgive in person. Resist the urge to let someone know they have wronged you. Forgiveness is often best done in secret.
6. Don’t become a maximizer during the holidays by letting extrinsic motivators like advertising and family social comparison create in you desires for things you don’t need and may actually regret acquiring. Plan ahead for next year, based on the experiences of this year. I know a family who post their Santa Wish lists on the pantry door. You might only end up with one thing from the list (some people band together), but at least it will be something you want. Another family doesn’t exchange gifts at all. Instead they take a family trip, an “arbitrary holiday” which takes place at the mutual convenience of everyone. Avoid the temptation, though, to imagine and pursue a more perfect holiday because Barry Schwartz has shown that the pursuit of maximizing “perfection” actually makes people less happy. Learn to satisfice—make do—(but without the feeling that you are “settling” which is closet maximizing).
You see, it’s all about framing. Kermit the Frog has the right idea.
It’s not that easy bein’ green;
Having to spend each day the color of the leaves.
When I think it could be nicer being red, or yellow or gold-
or something much more colorful like that.
It’s not easy bein’ green;
It seems you blend in with so many other ordinary things.
And people tend to pass you over ’cause you’re not standing out like flashy sparkles in the water- or stars in the sky.
< But green’s the color of Spring.
And green can be cool and friendly-like.
And green can be big like an ocean, or important like a mountain, or tall like a tree.
When green is all there is to be
It could make you wonder why, but why wonder why? Wonder,
I am green and it’ll do fine, it’s beautiful!
And I think it’s what I want to be.
–It’s Not Easy Bein’ Green–lyrics by Joe Rapposo
Emmons, R. (2007) Thanks!: How the new science of gratitude can make you happier. Boston: Houghton Mifflan Company.
Latham, G. & Locke, E. (2006). Enhancing the Benefits and Overcoming the Pitfalls of Goal Setting. Elsevier. [An article from: Organizational Dynamics]
Lyubomirsky, S. (2008). The How of Happiness: A Scientific Approach to Getting the Life You Want. New York: Penguin Books.
Schwartz, B. (2004). The Paradox of Choice: Why More Is Less. New York: Ecco.
Seligman, Martin (2002). Authentic Happiness: Using the New Positive Psychology to Realize Your Potential for Lasting Fulfillment. New York: Free Press.