Putting "Happy" Back in the Holidays

  • 4 min read

Photo by Juliette F on Unsplash

November and December are great months, right? The air is fresh, your knitwear’s cozy, the holidays are right around the corner. And as the long nights settle in, we all secretly love spending a bit more time at home (some of us less secretly than others).

But you’d be forgiven for feeling a little less excited about the 2020 holiday season. It’s hard to get excited about evenings on the sofa when you’ve seen nothing but your own four walls for most of the year. It’s hard. But it’s not impossible!

This Thanksgiving, there’s plenty to be grateful for — even after the year from hell. And long-standing Christmas traditions and festivities shouldn’t be put on hold. With the right framing, this holiday season could just be your best yet.

The psychology of “counting your blessings”

Humans adapt to change quickly; our brains are just wired that way. 

You might notice an irritating, repetitive noise one, twice or a handful of times. Then your brain acclimates and tunes it out. But this hard wiring doesn’t always serve us so well. Something very exciting can happen to us, but we get used to it pretty quickly. 

Psychologists call this “hedonic adaptation”. It can apply to all aspects of our life: like buying a fancy car or getting a pay rise, the novelty of which wears off after a few months.

So how can we find lasting happiness when our brains adapt, and move on, so quickly? We need to find a way to hold onto this fleeting feeling. 

That’s where ‘counting your blessings’ comes in. Gratitude has become something of a buzzword in the past few years; it’s now almost a meme-ified version of self-care. But science has proven time and time again that gratitude really works. People who practice gratitude — even just writing down three things a day they’re grateful for — are happier, healthier, and more appreciative of their lives. And we’re willing to bet there’s at least three things you can be grateful for this holiday season.

Everyone’s adapting and making do with what they’ve got

2020 was shitty for pretty much everyone on Earth, and there’s something kind of comforting in that. We all went through this unsettling. life-shifting experience together. Not only does that give us more in common than ever before, but we don’t have as much to compare ourselves to, either. 

Social media isn’t full of “friends” spending Thanksgiving in Europe, or attending concerts that we didn’t get tickets to. In a way, we’re all in the same boat: adapting to what 2020’s thrown at us, and trying to make the holidays work. 

With less performative social media activity to compare ourselves to, maybe we'll all be a bit happier with our lives this holiday season?

Can we reset our happiness reference points?

When scientists looked into the implications of comparing ourselves to others, they found that the best ‘cure’ is by resetting our personal reference points for happiness. Psychologists studied Olympic medal winners, and found that bronze medalists often appeared much happier than their silver-winning counterparts. The theory goes that the second-place athlete was fixated on the gold they didn't win, while the bronze medalist was thinking about the alternative of winning no medal at all. 

Our happiness reference points are usually subconscious — our brain picks a point that it thinks will make us happy and it's usually based on the performance of other people around us, which really kinda sucks. 

So if you can interrupt this process and actively reset your own reference points, you’ll have a greater chance of reaching them and finding happiness. Even just for a short while.

There are two ways to do this.

One is doing a hard reset. Spending two nights without air conditioning in the height of summer will make you way more appreciative of it when you switch it back on. 

The second method comes right back to gratitude. Take a minute to think about what your life would be like without the things you have. “What would my life be like if I didn’t have this house?” for example. “What would I do, who would I go to?”. This is called ‘negative visualization’ and while it seems extreme, can be successful in helping you appreciate the things you have.

Still not convinced? Here’s some quick-fire ways to find happiness this holiday season

The holidays can be the happiest time of the year. If what we’ve shared so far hasn't convinced you, here are some quick tips that’ll hopefully boost your serotonin:

Reflect on what has gone well

Yep, we’re taking it back to gratitude. 

In a year like 2020, it’s very very easy to think about all the things that have gone wrong. But it’s also important to make space for the things that did go your way. 

It might not come naturally, but taking time to acknowledge the good things about this year is imperative in shifting your mindset. We are a resilient and adaptable species.  And, amazingly, when something terrible happens to us, like losing a loved one, we’re often able to conjure up more good stuff that’s come from that loss, than bad stuff. 

Cook a delicious meal

‘Tis the season to get into the kitchen and cook for your loved ones. Can’t see family these holidays? Maybe you can bake something for a neighbor, or have a meal with friends in your pandemic pod. 

Cooking is actually really good for your mental health: it can ease stress and restlessness, enhance mindfulness, and you get the satisfaction of seeing (and eating) your end result. Put on a podcast or your favorite album and get in the kitchen.

Set yourself up for 2021

Soon 2020 will be behind us. And jotting down a few goals for the new year is a great way to get excited for what lies ahead. Just be sure to keep your goals realistic and measurable

Why? Because people who are given specific, actionable goals — like ‘Recycle all the disposable food containers I use this week’ — feel more satisfied with themselves and, in turn, have higher levels of happiness than people with broad, open goals like ‘save the environment’.

Enjoy the Good Life

Small and simple changes can have a huge impact on your mental health and mood. Subscribe to our digital magazine, the Good Life Journal, for more serotonin-boosting, happiness-spreading, community-forming content like this.