Have you noticed how amazing the holidays look in commercials?
We see visions of perfection—“Martha Stewart” tables filled with fabulous, cooked food and matching napkins; people laughing and getting along; crackling fires and soothing music in the background; perfectly decorated homes and the image of the perfect family.
We would all love to be the protagonists in these holiday commercials.
But the truth is, that for many of us, the holidays are not as wonderful as the commercials show.
In real life, in the US alone,
- Many of our families are devastated by pain from the loss of a loved one—a pain that resurfaces as we approach the first holiday season without them. Heart attacks and cancer claim the lives of a million of our loved ones each year, car accidents a million and a half, and 35,000 of us every year experience the unfathomable grief of losing a loved one to suicide.
- 6 million of us have to survive the holidays after the devastation of divorce, and an additional number of unmarried couples cope with the aftermath of breakups.
- Have you considered that over 43 million foreign-born immigrants live in the US? Some of us who are immigrants have families who live thousands of miles away and we don’t have any family close by to sit around our tables.
- And then there are people who lost their jobs in the last twelve months who live with fear and anxiety about how they will make ends meet.
I am not trying to be negative here, but real life includes all of those situations that impact many of us and it is really not like the “Martha Stewart” holiday commercials.
And here is the craziest thing about this: Although we all carry our fair share of pain and suffering, more times than not, we prefer to hide it from the rest of the world. We are ashamed to admit what is happening in our life and simply choose to write “blessed” on our Facebook wall.
Did you know that research is showing that shame triggers the stress response in the same way that being chased by a mountain lion would?
Let this be a gentle reminder that regardless of our circumstances, our socio-economic status, or any other of our unique characteristics, we all experience our fair share of sadness and loneliness, which can be increased by the conditioned way we view “the holidays.” Have you considered that if we shared our vulnerabilities, instead of keeping them to ourselves, our hearts might feel lighter?
I know we all have endless lists around the holidays—gifts to buy, things to do, places to be. However, I invite you to add a few additional items to your “to do” list this holiday season:
- Choose kindness and compassion.
We sometimes get so busy and lost in the never-ending lists of things we have to do, that we forget how simple it is to share kind words and actions and how much of a difference this choice makes in the world. In fact, a significant amount of science has taught us that kindness and compassion are natural anti-depressants. Forget about Prozac. There are so many more things we can do to beat the blues.
—Smile to people you meet! Did you know that a simple smile registers with others more than any other human expression and gives us a sense of connection?
—Give genuine compliments. Do you notice something that is worth acknowledging in another? What if while we are stuck in a long grocery line we use this time to talk about positive things with the people close to us in line?
—Give someone flowers for no reason and wish them happy holidays!
- Make time and space for mindfulness.
A decade ago, a Harvard professor and his team developed an app that tracked peoples’ happiness depending on what they were doing when the team randomly checked in with them. They found that 47% of the time their minds had wandered to things outside of the present moment. Can you imagine that we are not actually present for half of our lives? (You can participate yourself by going to trackyourhppiness.org.)
How can we infuse little reminders into our day to anchor us back to the present moment?
—It could be something as simple as committing to noticing when our mind starts wandering and taking a deep breath inviting our mind to come back to the present moment.
—We can start our day by taking a few breaths to savor the fact that we are able to still breathe, and we can set an intention for the day.
—We can spend a few minutes before retiring to sleep to breathe in a sense of gratitude for all the wonderful things we experienced that day, even if the day included a challenging “crucial” conversation with someone at work.
- Choose happiness.
No matter how difficult life may be at times, there are still a million things we can find to be happy about.
—Our resilience—how our heart is still beating regardless of the challenges and adversity we have had to face in our lives!
—The beauty of nature and the abundance of oxygen that the trees produce for us every day.
—The people that we have in our lives to love and be loved by.
—The sunshine on our face every day, no matter how much darkness we have to deal with at times.
There is ample evidence that reflects a myriad of benefits of choosing the positive perspective: We cultivate more hope and optimism; we are more open to connection; we experience bolstered immune function and increased positive emotions, as well as an increase in our nervous systems’ “vagal tone,” which is associated with feeling relaxed, healthy, and well.
The holidays can be a wonderful time of the year, as every day of our life can be.
An important component to making our life the most wonderful it can be is to make the choice to accept and share an undeniable part of our humanness: the pain and suffering that is part of life.
Our suffering can lead to abundant love and happiness if we let it guide us in reaching out and touching the hand of a fellow human being who has experienced a loss similar to one that we have experienced; if we choose to be extra kind and extend more compassion and patience and understanding; if we all just step outside of the costumes we wear and expose our vulnerabilities.
Maybe together we can make a better world for all of us to live in.
Because after all, what will “make the bells ring” is the carol that you sing right within your heart.