(13 of 99)

“Bah,” said Scrooge, “Humbug.”
― Charles Dickens, A Christmas Carol

The holidays get some seriously messed up press, and I don’t understand where this comes from. It could be from that Christmas movie with James Stewart (named one of the top American films) in which he mostly mopes around and whines and even at the end when everything is fixed he still looks like he just stepped in something yucky, and you get the idea that it is actually “the least… won-der-ful time… of the year” (did you hear those words in your head in Andy Williams’ voice?). Maybe old Scrooge was right.

There is some data to back this up. In 1967 two researchers demonstrated for the first time what is widely accepted today: stressful events can make you sick. Their research produced a ‘life events’ scale, and they found that the more of these events you recently endured, the more likely you are to experience significant illness in the coming year.

The list is topped by things that make perfect sense: losing your spouse is the highest-rated item on the list, followed closely by divorce and marital separation, all deeply traumatic events. Further down the list are less extreme but still stressful events: getting a mortgage, changing schools, becoming pregnant (especially if you are a man), being fired, and changes in eating habits. There are also events that seem like they might make some people happy and others sad, things like retirement (depends on how you feel about your job), and child leaving home (depends on which child).

But there are a few that don’t seem to fit at all: outstanding personal achievement and vacation both make the list as events that, while enjoyable, also create enough stress to potentially contribute to medical problems. To sum it all up, the one thing the items on the list all seem to share is change. Whether positive or negative, change is stressful, and this scale captures that. So it won’t surprise you that lurking down there near the bottom of the list, just above getting a traffic ticket, is this one: major holidays, and no holiday is more major than Christmas.

The Christmas season also pulls in a lot of other things from the stress list, like change in eating habits, change in recreation, change in living conditions, and a few more potential trouble-spots like trouble with in-laws, change in frequency of arguments, and for some families change in financial state, all of which is to say that if you are feeling a vague sense of unease about the upcoming festivities it may be justified, even if you are 99% sure you made the “nice” list this year.

But is the whole season a bust? There are a lot of myths and urban legends about Christmas; a few years ago some parents claimed that they had made up the whole Santa Claus story and there was a big fuss, and protests, and a group called “Jolly Old Elf Lives Matter” formed,  but that claim has been thoroughly debunked by children all over the world, who know better. There is an old claim, trotted out every year about this time, that suicides peak during the Christmas season, which is variously attributed to people getting discouraged because they are alone, or getting discouraged because they have to spend so much time with their relatives, or getting discouraged because it’s so cold and dark and they are stuck with relatives (and being alone starts looking better and better). If you saw the movie Apollo 13, in which three men spent six days crammed in a tiny, uncomfortable space together, with terror on every side and a horrible death lurking around every turn, that pretty much sums up Christmas in some families. But despite these hardships, November and December have the lowest number of suicides, not the highest. Details here.

The fine folks at the Gallup survey, who apparently spend all day, every day, calling people to ask them questions and being hung up on, decided to find out which days of the year are really the happiest. Gallup talked to 350,000 people (2.9 million hung up on them) over the course of a year to find out which days are the happiest. The top four, in order: Christmas, Thanksgiving, New Years, and Mothers Day. The saddest days of the year were topped by three random days in September and October, followed by Election Day in November…which was followed, no joke, by the day after Election Day when the results were known. That was in 2012 when the results followed the predictions, so you can imagine how this year’s “morning after” felt to half the country. Depending on which half you are in, you may not have to imagine it.

So how do you find the most joy for the least stress in the holidays ahead? You should start by acknowledging that the holidays are stressful, even if it’s positive stress, so don’t feel like you’re getting a bum deal when you find yourself tensing up a bit. Instead, just see the stress as the price of admission to a generally positive event. Beyond that, here are three great suggestions from Christine Carter to make the season bright:

  1. Focus on connecting. Make bonding with others a priority, reminding yourself that you are part of something larger. You can do this in person, online, by mail, or even by talking on the telephone if you are that sort of person. I mostly talk to two people on my phone: my mother and Siri. Mom is way more helpful than Siri.
  2. Intentionally schedule your time. This should include the preparations, the events, the non-events (yes some of us need down-time to recharge when we are being accosted by well-meaning relatives), and whatever else is important. You need to acknowledge that not everything will fit so make sure the things that really matter really happen.
  3. Trade expectations for appreciation. Because we already have so much, it is really tough for us to receive a truly amazing gift, and if we are not careful we set ourselves up for disappointment. Practice enjoying whatever life is handing you right this moment, whether or not it is what you expected or wanted or asked for. Try investing some time and effort to help people who would be profoundly grateful to receive some of what you already have by spending time in service, or collaborating as a family to help another family, which has become a highlight of our holiday season.

And if your batting average with “The Big C” is low, don’t lose hope. The happiest day of the year for most people has the potential to be pretty happy for you too.

Submit your questions for our end-of-year column here.

You can read more about happy and sad days here.

Next time: Is happiness increasing? Decreasing? Both? Neither?

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