Mental Health & The Holidays - Creating The Most Wonderful Day

Is December really “the most wonderful time of the year?” Some of us think it is. Perhaps it’s because, whether consciously or not, we collectively design this time of the year around several fundamental, positive concepts the science of psychology has taught us over the last 60 years. Here are some of the thoughtful actions that can bring magic to our lives and those around us:

We practice Behavioral Activation. We read, watch movies, try a new recipe, or simply put; we plan and complete sets of rewarding activities. For many, this time of the year is also the time to complete those tasks or projects that were postponed all year round, maybe because there is awareness that as the New Year starts routines will get crowded again. 

Cognitive Behavioral Therapy, or CBT, has taught us that our behaviors and feelings influence each other. When we are actively involved in doing things that bring enjoyment and meaning, like trying that new pie recipe to share with others, our mood improves. For those who struggle with depression, behavioral activation is a powerful tool where the individual learns to monitor daily activities and identify sets of goals and behaviors that ultimately bring motivation and energy through pleasure and mastery. 

For many, the challenge with activating these behaviors is that we lack the motivation to start them. A pivotal point is experiencing motivation during the process of starting the new activity, not the other way around. Many can anecdotally relate to this— when a new desirable behavior, like exercising or eating healthier, is contemplated, the motivation is experienced once the first few steps are taken. 

Latino man meditating on the floor with his hands placed over his heart

We pause to recognize those things we Feel Grateful for and we Regulate Our Attention. We start the holiday season with our own version of a gratitude list and we carry those feel-good activities by listening to good music, taking a ride to see the neighborhood cheer or watch that movie that takes us back to treasured memories. Positive psychology has presented us with good evidence on how gratitude journals increase our focus on positive experiences and leads to improved well-being by reducing stress, increasing happiness and improving our self-esteem. 

Two women hugging and exchanging gifts at a holiday party

We Socialize. During this time, we are prone to reach out to our loved ones, re-connect with old friends and revitalize our relationships. We foster our social engagement as we meet with friends for dinner, attend church, or simply call someone or send a post card. There is enough evidence that demonstrates that interacting with others and working on building social connections are beneficial to both our physical and mental health. 

An African American man and his son decorate their Christmas tree

We Treat Ourselves. Changes to our scenery with decoration, taking a warm bath, disconnecting from daily routine, or buying that special gift for ourselves feels good. As we start to wrap up a busy year, rewarding ourselves after achieving goals is worth celebrating. In fact, purposely remembering and rewarding our hard work can be a very powerful tool against negative self-talk, or any other thinking pattern that attempts to discredit our good work. It also sets us up for a good new year as we remind ourselves our successes and feel optimistic when we outline new goals to achieve.

Two young girls sitting in front of a window, exchanging a gift

We practice Altruism. Research shows that people generally feel better when they help others. That random, yet purposeful, act of kindness we look forward to, giving, has powerful effects! So, no matter how rough our year was, through our acts of kindness we are intrinsically reminded that the sacrifices we chose to endure were for the greater good of our families, our friends, our community, our country, our world. When we practice effective altruism, we are choosing to be kind, accepting, tolerant and ultimately, we are creating a Wonderful Day. 

May this holiday season ease our way to continue fostering and designing routines that leads us to a pleasant, good and meaningful life all year round.