If you were to believe the 1963 song made popular by Andy Williams, the holiday season should be the "Most Wonderful Time of the Year." If that were true, then how is it possible that a recent survey found that the Christmas holiday season is the sixth most stressful life event, taking backseat only to divorce, moving and starting a new job? Wonderful?
Maybe it's the to-do list that consumes us. Maybe the traffic. Perhaps it's holidays past that ended badly. Or the thoughts of the soon-to-come drama from your self-absorbed sister or crazy uncle. A very common cause of stress is the intense sadness with memories of lost loved ones. The end of the calendar year seems also to cause us to look at the year in review with a focus on the losses rather than the gains.
Do you detect a common thread in the paragraph above? It's focus. "We are what we think. All that we are arises from our thoughts. We make the world." Gautama Siddhartha's quote tells us of a profound but very elusive truth. We choose happiness.
Here are a few life lessons I've learned along my sometimes bumpy way from childhood joy, to Scrooge-like cynicism to contented wisdom. Bringing the wonder back into this wonderful time of the year is also a matter of choice.
1 Control the context - Rather than a to-do list, think of your tasks as acts of kindness and giving designed ultimately to make someone else happy. Traffic? Not obstructions to you, but a sign of humans out and about getting ready to celebrate ... or at the very least a boom to the economy. Self-absorbed sister? A sister is a blessing and someone with whom you shared much. She does have some good qualities as does your crazy uncle. Let's hear it for those who take the path less traveled. Sadness? Of course we miss those who left our lives. We are sad; however, because they brought so much happiness to us. Remembering those times transforms our memory of them to a positive spiritual practice.
2 Don't miss the holidays - In traffic? Be there. Observe those around you. Don't judge them, just observe. Fellow humans, just like you, doing the best they can. Really, see the decorations, the lights. Hear the music. Look at the faces of children. Yes, you have a to-do list but you have the list, so don't let your attention be diverted by chattering thoughts about that list. Do the tasks, and in between, wherever you are, be there. It is indeed a wonderful place.
3 Give the gift of Compassion - The Dalai Lama tells us, "Happiness is not ready made. It comes from our actions." A 2008 experiment published by Harvard Business School professor Michael Norton found that people who spent money on others were happier than if they had spent it on themselves, and the amount was irrelevant. It was simply the act of giving. Even more powerful, is the ability to have compassion for those we don't know, or whom we don't particularly like, or even for those who criticize us. Those last two are not easy, but they're probably the most potent of all stress reducers. I have friends who looked down on the earth from the Shuttle and were forever changed. We're all inhabitants of a very small planet in a vast universe. How can we not value one another?
4 Be Grateful - Research confirms that people who express gratitude are much happier than those who do not. Once again, if we focus on being grateful for what we have rather than what we've lost or what we want, how can we be anything but happy? Make it a practice, perhaps when you wake up, or when you look at your neighbor's new convertible, or when someone dents your bumper. I'm going to be recovering from surgery over the holidays, but I'm getting a new ankle for a present. I'm thrilled
5 Choose the high road - In Andrew Newberg and Mark Robert Waldman's book, Words Can Change Your Brain, they write, "The more you stay focused on negative words and thoughts, the more you can actually damage key structures that regulate your memory, feelings, and emotions. You may disrupt your sleep, your appetite, and the way your brain regulates happiness, longevity and health. That's how powerful a single word can be." So at the fork in the road during the many times you speak during the day, choose the high road ... the positive word, expression or idea. Change "The holidays were incredibly hectic and crazy, and I'm glad they're over" to "The most wonderful time of the year."
I know, some of these things sound hokey, but for me, I'll choose a little hokey over depressing, stressful and sad.
Live Long, Live Well, and celebrate your life every day!