Ever since I was a little girl, the holidays have always been my favorite time of year. I love decorating for Christmas, the nostalgic cheerful music about snowmen and living in a marshmallow world, and I’m even one of the rare few who enjoys seeing holiday decorations in the stores as early as August. I still love this time of year, but as I’ve gotten older, the months of November and December have become more stressful and overwhelming, especially with work, family, and responsibilities. Let’s not forget that I’m a certified people pleaser who has a hard time telling people no in fear of hurting their feelings or having them upset with me.
Sociologist and happiness expert Dr. Christine Carter of UC Berkeley’s Greater Good Science Center is best known for her science based happiness tips, and she was kind enough to join me for an interview this morning to discuss how we can avoid disappointment this season and stop being so hard on ourselves, the secret to saying “no”, and she also offered stress relieving tips we can use when we feel a sense of overwhelm.
Candace Rose: The holidays are often thought of as the most wonderful time of the year, but for some that might not be the case. What’s the best way to avoid being disappointed this season?
Dr. Christine Carter: “A mound of research shows that we are happiest over the holidays when we give to others, particularly when we give to people in need.
I like people to create what I call a giving trifecta by shopping at retailers that donate a portion of the proceeds to causes that are really close to your heart. For example, this year I’ll be making my gift purchases through the AmazonSmile program and then I’ll use my Chase Freedom card to do that because I get that trifecta or that triple whammy of gift giving, so everybody on my list obviously gets their present and then the AmazonSmile program gives money to the Tipping Point, which is a local charity that I chose and is really close to my heart. That Chase Freedom card allows me to donate back the rewards, so I get 5% cash back on that and I turn around and donate that money to the Tipping Point as well.
That makes my gift giving which can sometimes be disappointing, as you mentioned, or even stressful much, much more meaningful and fulfilling.”
Candace Rose: Are people to hard on themselves this time of the year?
Dr. Christine Carter: “Oh yes. I think we’re all really hard on ourselves at this time of the year. We have really high expectations of ourselves and everything that we’ll get done and yet this is a very overwhelming time of the year. I think if we want to be happy and not too exhausted, there are a lot of things that we can do.
One of them is really obvious, it’s just simplify a little bit, lower your expectations around things. If you’re like me, I like to cook for my children home cooked meals, that kind of goes out the window during the holidays. It’s not that I don’t like to cook, it’s much more realistic for me to just rely on pre-prepared foods this time of the year. Being willing to make trade-offs I think is really important for adding the holidays into our already busy lives.”
Candace Rose: Is it okay to say no to a friend’s party or other invitation?
Dr. Christine Carter: “I think it’s actually really important to say no to many of the invitations that come our way. Knowing that if we do everything that we’re invited to do, odds are that we’ll be too exhausted to actually enjoy the holidays. Of course, say yes with gusto to the things that are going to bring you the most joy, but when you start to feel tired or hopefully before you start to get too tired, having a go-to way to say no is really an important thing to do. Have something in your back pocket, practice it before you actually need it. I always say a sort of vague but strangely effective ‘Thank you so much for inviting me to do that, I really wish I could…but it’s not going to work out for our family this year’. What I’m saying is it’s not going to work out for our family this year if I’m really tired and exhausted, right? That way they know that it’s not personal.”
Candace Rose: What’s the best way to make everything you need done happen with less stress?
Dr. Christine Carter: “One of the things that can stress us out is just not knowing when we’re going to do something. If you find yourself waking up early in the morning or not being able to fall asleep at night or throughout the day, having intrusive thoughts about everything you have to get done and this sort of overwhelming feeling that you don’t have enough time in the day to do it, researchers used to think that was your unconscious mind reminding you of all the things that you needed to get done, to increase the odds that you’d actually get them done. But actually, now we know that your unconscious mind just needs to know when you will do something to stop reminding you that you have to do it.
This can actually really decrease stress, decrease feeling of overwhelm – what I recommend is you just make a list of everything you need to get done over the holidays and then this is the key part – decide specifically when you will do it and know that if you are able to put these tasks on your calendar, what you’re really doing is decreasing stress by telling your unconscious brain it can relax and it’s all going to happen.”
Candace Rose: Do you have any stress relieving tips for those of us who have a full plate this holiday season?
Dr. Christine Carter: “Yes, absolutely. One thing that’s not super intuitive in terms of stress reduction is to really focus your attention on what you feel grateful for. Gratitude is a positive emotion and all positive emotions, especially gratitude can counteract that fight or flight response and put the brakes on that stress response in our system. If you noticed that you’re starting to get stressed out or overwhelmed or just frustrated by something this holiday season, move your attention to something about that situation that actually – even though you’re frustrated or even though you’re stressed – you still have really big appreciation for or you really feel grateful for. If you can’t find something in that situation, broaden your perspective a little bit and find something that you appreciate about that day or that week or the holiday season. By moving your attention to gratitude, by consciously cultivating gratitude, we can be a lot less stressed and a lot more joyful this holiday season.”
Candace Rose: Do you have any additional tips or information you’d like to share with us?
Dr. Christine Carter: “Absolutely! I have lots of tips for happier holidays on my website ChristineCarter.com.”