Six tips for a happy holiday season

Positive Psychology experts share their advice for boosting well-being this holiday season.

A woman sits by a fireplace with twinkle lights and drinks tea
Image: iStock/Polina Lebed

After two years of festive gatherings at the whim of coronavirus variants and pandemic lockdowns, this year may feel like the most “normal” holiday season in a long time. But normal doesn’t necessarily mean stress-free; as much as they’re a time of celebration, connection, and gratitude, the holidays can also be a time of pressure and turmoil.

“It’s easy to lose our way in the hustle and bustle of the holidays,” says James Pawelski, a professor of practice and director of education at Penn’s Positive Psychology Center. However, says Suzie Pileggi Pawelski, co-author of Happy Together and alumna of the Master of Applied Positive Psychology program, it’s important to “notice the small sacred moments of opportunity to connect and reflect.”

To help everyone prioritize their well-being this holiday season, the husband/wife duo shared with Penn Today six pieces of advice backed by research in the field of positive psychology.

1. Express gratitude for who and what you have

Making this a habit is a time-tested way to feel more satisfied in life, says Pileggi Pawelski. And when you share that gratitude with others, you can forge deeper, more-connected relationships.

To build this in during the holidays, Pileggi Pawelski recommends “seeing through the gift to the giver.” That means instead of just feeling excited about the gift itself, try to recognize and acknowledge the thoughtfulness behind the gift.

2. Be grateful for what you don’t have, too

While it’s important to be thankful for what we do have, Pawelski says, “this year in particular, we ought to emphasize being grateful for what we don’t have.”

For Pawelski, that means gratitude that there aren’t lockdown measures, isolation, or uncertainty about vaccine development. “It’s not that the pandemic is completely over at this point,” he says. “But we don’t have the same kind of struggle with the pandemic that we did two years ago, or even one year ago, and that’s a place where I think we ought to express some gratitude.”

3. Lead with curiosity, not condemnation

For many, the holidays entail not-so-easy conversations with relatives. “Over the holidays, whether it’s political differences or disagreements about food, there’s opportunity for people to collide rather than connect,” says Pileggi Pawelski. She suggests not going into an interaction with a set idea about the outcome, but rather doing your best to be truly curious and empathize with someone else’s point of view. “Rather than condemning someone, there’s an opportunity for further understanding,” she says.

Pawelski adds that one way to approach these conversations is to focus on the human experience behind the opinions expressed. It’s easy to clash with someone over their political or religious views, but curiosity about the actual lived experience that has made someone open to those views can lead to greater empathy and even understanding.

4. Tap into your flow

In psychology, a flow state is when a person is completely immersed in a task, leading to that satisfying “in the zone” sensation. “We typically really like to be in flow,” says Pawelski. “But we tend to experience flow more at work than we do at home.” That’s because it requires clear goals and dedicated effort. So, when we have time off for the holidays and switch into relaxation mode, losing out on those moments of flow can make us feel aimless.

Pawelski assures that total relaxation can promote well-being in doses, but suggests treating relaxation like sweets: nice from time to time, not all day, every day. To maintain the benefits of flow over the holidays, Pawelski recommends choosing one thing to put real effort into—deep cleaning, a hobby, making music, visiting an art museum, learning something new, even a relationship.

5. Don’t maximize, ‘satisfice’

For anyone with a perfectionist streak, the holidays can provoke anxiety, whether over decorating an Instagram-ready tree or reuniting with loved ones after years of separation. Pawelski recommends rather than trying to maximize every aspect of the holiday season, see where you might “satisfice” instead. Satisficing means being okay with outcomes that satisfy a need rather than fully optimizing it.

“That doesn’t mean accepting poor quality or just not caring. What it means is keeping in mind the reason why we’re doing this,” says Pawelski. “The reason why we’re having dinner together is not so that the place settings are absolutely perfect. It’s so that we can connect as human beings.”

6. Prioritize positivity, whatever that means to you

There’s a lot of pressure to be joyful during the holidays, but feeling a little down is totally normal, too. It can be hard to get out of that rut, says Pawelski. “If we try to take direct control of our emotions, then we’re likely not only to fail, but also to feel bad for having failed,” he says.

Instead of forcing holiday cheer, Pawelski and Pileggi Pawelski recommend simply prioritizing activities that put you in a good mood. A good mood doesn’t need to mean “happy,” either; positive emotions encompass feelings like serenity, amusement, inspiration, love, and more. Pileggi Pawelski suggests thinking about the type of positive emotion you’d like to feel and engaging in an activity that might help get you there.

If you’re still feeling down, Pawelski recommends finding a trusted friend or family member to confide in rather than venting to a large group. Both positivity and negativity are contagious, Pileggi Pawelski says. “Just like we don’t want to spread physical germs,” she says, “we don’t want to spread negativity.” The opposite holds true, too. “If you’re feeling good,” Pawelski says, “share those feelings with everyone.”

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.

Suzie Pileggi Pawelski is an alumna of the Master of Applied Positive Psychology program at the University of Pennsylvania. She is a freelance writer and well-being consultant specializing in the science of happiness and its effects on health and relationships. She pens a popular blog for “Psychology Today” and is co-author, along with Pawelski, of “Happy Together.”