Enforced Happiness

“Happiness makes up in height what it lacks in length”Robert Frost

Tis the season to be jolly. . .fah la la la la, la la la la. All well and good. . .but what if you’re not? From Thanksgiving ’til New Year’s Day every year, there’s a frenetic pace in the race to the new year. People continue their usual routines of career, obligate chores, and family maintenance. But, in addition, there are presents to be bought, a host of cards and packages to mail, parties big and small to attend, and a requisite number of year end duties–both business and personal. In essence, it’s a time of doing everything you normally do. . .and adding significant obligations to this already full schedule. And, all the while, we should be joyous. . .because, after all. . it’s the Holiday Season!

About a decade ago, I started calling this time of year, the period of Enforced Happiness. You see, whether you’re happy or not, you should be. And, if in fact, you are physically ill, terribly stressed with mounting commitments, or frankly depressed, you’re still obligated to put on that cheerful facade of Holiday Merriment.

So the stress is there. . .how to maintain sanity in this Season of Santa? How do you handle the additional demands on your time, your energies, and your emotions? Let’s consider three strategies each of us can use to make the holiday season more personally joyous.

First, prioritize your goals and make a schedule. Obviously, in this season of excess, it will be truly impossible to do everything offered or considered. As a consequence, make a list of tasks and activities and prioritize them on the basis of urgency and personal meaning. If you feel that certain tasks must be done, schedule them first and don’t procrastinate. Shopping for family gifts,trimming the tree, specific baking tasks, and a traditional home or office party might fall into this first category. But, if one or more of your ‘traditions’ have rarely provided you much joy during the holidays. . .especially if they’re terribly time consuming (e.g. baking cakes for everyone in your neighborhood or mailing 100s of Christmas cards to people who don’t exist the rest of the year), place them in the low-priority category, and get to them if you have a chance. . .or perhaps, omit them totally from your schedule this year. Streamline your tasks whenever possible. One big shopping trip for groceries and decorations will be much less time consuming than multiple small trips. Your lists and schedules will keep you organized and give you a sense of accomplishment as you “check items off’. More importantly, defined goals help us to feel more in control and help to diminish our sense of stress. So, be realistic when you make your schedules–remembering that a certain amount of flexibility will help to accommodate the inevitable, unexpected interruptions.

Second, focus on positive expectations and exercise your options. Part of the Enforced Happiness of this season includes traditional gatherings with family, neighbors, and co-workers. Inevitably, we have relatives or associates who bore us or make us uncomfortable. Rather than dreading another unwelcome party, just politely “Regret” and take a long winter walk in the park instead. Or, if it’s a function you can’t refuse, plan ahead which people you will spend time with and which ones you’ll avoid. We can diffuse a tremendous amount of stress by finding a meaningful perspective on upcoming events and remembering to exercise our options to nurture ourselves.

Finally, remember to exercise and relax. Such a simple concept, but so many of us put these vital aspects of good health on the back burner to do ‘when we have time’–and the time never comes. Exercise counterbalances the anxiety that typifies the frenetic holiday pace. It stimulates circulation, burns calories and actually relaxes us at the same time. And, it helps to counter the average 7 lb. weight gain that most adult Americans have between Thanksgiving and New Year’s Day. I discussed the merits of “Time Outs” in an earlierInsight(See 2-28-00 Insight in Previous Topics/Insight Archives), and there’s certainly no better time of year to reap the benefits than the days of Enforced Happiness.

So, 1) Scheduled, prioritized goals, 2) Positive expectations of upcoming holiday functions (remembering to tailor them to enhance personal enjoyment), and 3) Defined time for exercise and relaxation all help to defuse holiday stress, and allow us to enjoy the season as we should. It can be a wonderful time for affirming commitments to family, friends, and community. If you remember that YOU really are in charge of your actions and schedules, you’ll prioritize according to your own interests and needs. And, the ensuing happiness will be genuine, not enforced.

Stephen L. Hines, M.D.
December 2000