Four strategies to find joy in a very different holiday season

Experts from Penn’s Positive Psychology Center suggest tweaking traditions, acknowledging the situation’s highs and lows, and seeking help from people in your life.

Two pairs of socked feet, up on a bench next to a steaming mug of hot liquid. In the background is a fireplace with a fire.

In a December like no other, with the pandemic preventing many of the gatherings typically associated with this time of year, holiday season 2020 is unique, says Karen Reivich, director of resilience training for Penn’s Positive Psychology Center (PPC). “In any given year, the holidays have highs and lows,” she says. “Those are just the holidays. But this one is going to be different.” 

Couple that with fears about surging COVID-19 cases and hopes about a potential vaccine and people are experiencing a jumble of emotions. 

“One key is to remember that every moment in our lives is a new moment,” says James Pawelski, PPC’s director of education. “The temptation is to put a label on it—it’s disruptive or it’s impossible—but then we forget to look at the world and see what’s there. I don’t mean to be glib or dismissive of the difficulties of this moment, but so much depends on how you frame it.” 

To that end, Pawelski and Reivich offer four strategies to stay upbeat and find joy this holiday season: 

1. Spell out what feelings the holidays evoke and try incorporating gratitude

Do the holidays elicit joy? Love at being surrounded by family? Excitement? “The emotions that the holidays bring are part of what make them so special,” Reivich says. “Being able to name for yourself the specific emotions that make your holidays meaningful helps you to create them but maybe just in a different way.”

It might be a good year to incorporate more gratitude, Pawelski says. “It’s a really good emotion to cultivate. It’s so versatile. If you’re in a tough time, gratitude can help you see the good in your life, reminding you of assets you have and strengths you can rely on. And if you’re in a good place already, gratitude can amplify the great things you are experiencing.” This means that many moments in this unique holiday season present something to be grateful for, he says.

2. Tweak the familiar familial rituals

For the past decade, Pawelski’s parents have flown from Ohio to Pennsylvania for Thanksgiving, a tradition his family had to sideline this year. Instead, they did a video call during which everyone shared favorite memories of past Thanksgivings. Pawelski describes this move as the keep-and-tweak: Take a tradition and alter it to fit this moment. 

If the family watches the same movie together each year, instead watch it over Zoom, then host a trivia game about it. If the ritual centers around food, eat in separate houses simultaneously. “If we can focus on getting creative, we’re not just saying there’s nothing to be done,” says Pawelski. “Instead, we’re modeling for our kids and creating memories they’ll remember for the rest of their lives.” 

Some modified traditions may take permanent hold, Reivich says. “Maybe we like the new ritual better. We’re going to remember that it was born out of adversity, and we’re going to stick with it,” she says. This doesn’t apply just to the holidays, she says. Reivich has recently started asking people to note one tweak they’ve made during the pandemic that they plan to keep. For her, it’s having more photography and music in her life. 

3. Acknowledge that this is hard 

Doing so doesn’t negate the effort put into molding family traditions to suit the here and now. “We can’t pretend that these holidays are going to be the same. Acknowledge the anxiety, the sadness, the loss,” Reivich says. “That’s not antithetical to also creating the best that you can with what you’re given. In fact, acknowledging the loss often frees us up to have more energy to enjoy the good.” 

This extends beyond the holidays, too, as the chill of winter threatens to squash any socially distanced, outdoor, masked socializing and the news brings daily increasing COVID-19 numbers. The difference now is the faint, twinkling light at the very end of the tunnel. 

“In some ways, we feel like we’ve been here before,” says Pawelski. “Part of what was so challenging at the start of the pandemic was that it felt like the world was falling apart and we didn’t know how it would play out. Now, things are getting tough again, but we’re pretty sure the world isn’t falling apart. We’ve begun to make inroads. We have some experience with how this works, and we’re getting some good news with regard to the vaccinations, which we didn’t have six months ago.” 

4. Don’t put extra pressure on the situation or romanticize the holidays

Not everyone loves the holidays, nor are family gatherings always the relaxing, joyful experiences people remember them to be. “We are going to miss out on some of the things we really enjoy,” Reivich says, “but let’s not pretend that holidays gone by are just sitting around roasting chestnuts. That’s important to acknowledge, too. Most of us experience moments of delight and frustration or sadness during the holidays—not just now but every year.” 

She suggests setting and voicing expectations. Members of the same family can view the pandemic through different lenses, so it’s important to state those outright. For example, be clear with Uncle Bob that you understand how much he wants to be together, but that family safety comes first so the typical holiday dinner won’t happen this year. 

“All of us are going to have ups and downs in our emotions—not just over the holidays but as the pandemic wears on, and we know that reaching out, asking for help is a sign of resilience,” Reivich says; this isn’t one size fits all. 

A tool she likes is one she calls the “reach-out road map,” a list that includes the reasons a person seeks help and who he or she might call for each. That might mean someone to vent to, someone to laugh with, and a third to talk through a difficult challenge. Write down the list then keep it somewhere visible like a computer or refrigerator. “Remind yourself of all the people in your life who are still there who you can connect with,” she says. “It is uplifting.” 

James Pawelski is a professor of practice and director of education in the Positive Psychology Center in the School of Arts & Sciences at the University of Pennsylvania. He is also director of the Humanities and Human Flourishing Project, which investigates connections between engagement in the arts and humanities and human flourishing.

Karen Reivich is the director of resilience and positive psychology training programs for the Positive Psychology Center in the School of Arts & Sciences at the University of Pennsylvania.