If holiday movies and popular Instagram feeds are to be believed, the holidays are pure magic. It is always snowing. There are always fresh cookies coming out of your oven (in your spotless kitchen) and there’s always enough time—and money—to get it all done, cup of hot cocoa in hand. The reality, however, often feels different.
Most Americans experience increased stress during the holidays, either due to a lack of time, a lack of money, or both. There are gifts to buy, tinsel to hang, and social obligations to get to and that can put a pretty big strain on your time and your wallet. For those struggling with anxiety and depression or who don’t have close family and friends to celebrate with, the holidays can be even harder. Seeing everyone else reveling in the hustle and bustle can exacerbate feelings of sadness and isolation. Even when we swear that, “This year we’ll cut back, and things will be different,” the stress and expectations surrounding the holidays can make the most magical time of year still seem decidedly un-magical.
And who would blame us? Think about it—we spend 11 months of the year preoccupied with work, bills, and personal obligations, and then we’re supposed to transform into jolly old elves as soon as December rolls around? It’s no wonder people feel stressed and down.
Could there be a way back, though? As a child, the holiday season really did seem magical. Decorating, baking cookies, even the mall Santa … it all inspired a sense of hope, a giddiness about what was to come. Even as an adult in my early 20s, I still remember feeling there was something different about that time of year—anything could happen at Christmas.
In recent years, I’ve tried to hold on to that feeling but it’s difficult when there’s always so much to do. All those once fun activities—like tree trimming and writing holiday cards—can become just another stressor on my already packed to-do list. (Not to mention the anxious nights spent poring over a budget stretched a little too thin by gift buying.)
But the holidays don’t have to be this way. Even with a packed schedule and a tight budget, truly getting back to that childhood feeling of wonderment might just come down to how we view things.
Keith Cartwright, a behavioral health wellness consultant for the state of Virginia and an alcohol and drug education coordinator at Randolph-Macon College, believes that seeking out reasons to feel grateful first, especially at our most stressed, can turn even trying times into more memorable and meaningful experiences. He also believes gratitude can be the antidote to loneliness and hopelessness during the holidays and throughout the year.
“The more we can get ourselves centered on being appreciative of what we have right here and now, the better we can find some sort of peace in our lives,” Cartwright said.
Cartwright committed himself to a life of gratitude after the birth of his son 12 years ago. He vowed to be thankful even for the tough moments—the late-night feedings, the tantrums, all of it. His blog, A Life of Gratitude, was created as a way of holding himself to that promise, and he asserts that anyone can benefit from cultivating a regular gratitude practice.
And it is a practice. Cartwright readily acknowledges that simple tactics—like writing down three things you’re grateful for—doesn’t always translate to exuberant joy. But it can help you get in the habit of looking for reasons to be thankful instead of reasons to feel frustrated.
He also recommends tying your gratitude to someone else—a spouse, parent, friend, or anyone in your life that brings you joy. Instead of saying, “I’m thankful for these Christmas cookies,” you can think about the person who made them, about the work that went into them, about the giver’s generosity and role in your life. This makes the gratitude more tangible and authentic.
Linking gratitude to other people also alleviates another problem Cartwright finds concerning. “I think our lack of hope and lack of peace is sort of always tied to this disconnect from other people,” he said, a feeling often exacerbated by the holidays.
There are many ways to experience a stronger connection with the world. Volunteering during the holidays, asking a friend to go for a walk, having a meal with a family member—these are small but powerful ways to feel less alone. Virtual connections can be meaningful as well. While experts seem to agree that nothing beats good, old-fashioned facetime, chatting with an old friend or relative via a messaging or video app can ease the sting of loneliness. Online communities and forums can also serve as great places to meet people who share your interests and to find like-minded people with whom you can bond.
Cartwright also believes those of us who aren’t struggling have a responsibility to look out for those who are. When someone seems down or stressed, we have a chance to help them by asking them earnestly what’s going on or including them in a holiday event. Isolation hurts no matter when you experience it, but it’s worse at a time of year when everything seems to center around family and community. Reaching out to someone who needs help allows us to forge deeper bonds.
Pay attention to the people around you every day as well. A quiet co-worker might appreciate someone inviting them to lunch or company happy hours, or an acquaintance within your friend group could become a lifelong friend once you get to know them better.
At home and on our own, during the hustle and bustle of the holidays, we can all reclaim some joy and wonder by paying more attention to the people around us and being grateful for them. Instead of grumbling about the gifts we need to buy, we can really think about who we are giving them to and take a moment to be thankful they’re in our lives. Instead of worrying whether we’re spending enough money, we can pause to be grateful we have money to spend at all and savor the experience of choosing the perfect gift for someone we love. And instead of snapping at our siblings because they’re not setting the table correctly or they’re getting in the way of our baking, we can take a moment to laugh with them and simply be grateful for their presence.
We won’t find magic in the holiday madness unless we look for it—but it’s there in abundance if we’re willing to change the way we see this time of year.