We’re in the thick of it now: The decorations are up, the Muzak has switched to all carols all the time and the cards are starting to arrive in the mail. From now until early January, we’ll be greeted with “Happy holidays!”
But happiness isn’t guaranteed to come to us like a delivery from Amazon Prime, even — or especially — at this time of year.
Jamie Friend understands that.
Through her work as a resilience specialist and health and wellness coach at Mayo Clinic in Rochester, Friend has learned that happiness isn’t one-size-fits-all, and that while most of us want it, we don’t necessarily know what it means for us or how to work toward it.
We talked with Friend about taking action vs. hoping and the role that stress, gratitude and expectations play in our search to be happy.
Q: Let’s start with an easy question. What is happiness?
A: What is happiness for you? It’s very individual.
Q: How do I figure out what makes me — as an individual — happy?
A: Discovering what happiness means to you means taking the time to sit down with yourself and think about when you’re the most happy — at work, at home, with your family. Be deliberate about it. Make a draft of what happiness looks like for you. That could be in terms of your perfect day or just a list of things that make you smile.
Q: So happiness doesn’t just happen?
A: The issue with happiness is it’s so broad. We can’t just say, “I want to be happy.” Our brain doesn’t know what to do with that. We have to break it down and make it more tangible.
Q: We’re supposed to be happy during “the most wonderful time of the year.” That can be difficult. Why?
A: When we get stressed, life starts to seem like it’s moving too fast. The easiest thing for us to do is to give up the things that make us happy. We often see these things as selfish or not necessary, anyway. So we put ourselves on the back burner. We don’t realize that by doing so, we leave ourselves open to more stress.
Q: And stress doesn’t help with happiness.
A: No. When we’re under stress, our brain just homes in on the negative. It’s that old fight-or-flight response. But by focusing on the negative, you’re setting the table for conflict.
Q: Is there any hope for a happy holiday?
A: The holidays can be a boost, if you love the music and decorating and coming together with people and trying out new recipes. If you feel like it’s just more things you have to do, the holidays can create more stress. It depends on how you look at it.
Q: Can we change how we look at it?
A: Yes. That’s where gratitude comes in. We can train our brains to look at what’s working, what’s going well.
It’s not about wearing rose-colored glasses. In gratitude, we honor that some days are the worst. But what’s a little less bad? If I keep looking for what’s good, it keeps fueling the gratitude.
Q: Beyond practicing gratitude, what else can we do?
A: You can’t get by on expectations alone. If we go into the holidays thinking, “This is going to be the best holidays ever,” but we don’t know what that looks like, and don’t put anything into it, it won’t be the best holidays ever. I’ve got to know what a happy holiday looks like for me and how I achieve it.
Even just writing it down, drafting it out, gives us a sense of control. Then we can ask ourselves, what part of this event do I have control over? What tools do I have? What resources do I need?
Happiness is so big, it’s so broad, but you can cultivate it. But you’ve got to be taking some action. If you’re just thinking about it, hoping for it, that may not change anything.
Q: Can you give an example?
A: Sure. What makes me happy at the holidays is cooking a meal that everyone — including my sons — will love. The reality is that my sons’ sense of taste changes constantly. It’s unlikely that they’ll love anything I make. So I have to set my expectation more from the part I can control — cooking a meal — than how it will be received.
Q: What role do expectations play in happiness?
A: Expectations can be one of the worst obstacles to our happiness, especially if we’ve got these big expectations for the holidays, and we haven’t mapped them out or even told anyone about them.
You need to examine your expectations, do your planning, and do what you can to make it happen. Or adjust your expectations.
Q: It sounds like work. Is it?
A: Some of the things we have to do at the holidays aren’t all that easy. We may have to interact with people we’re uncomfortable with. Before you see this person, get yourself in a good mental space. Then, look at your experiences with this person and find the things you value. And then say to yourself, “I’m going to meet this person as if for the first time. I’m going to be curious and ask him about himself.”
Try to stay away from things you know you two have had challenges with and bring a fresh perspective. Bring curiosity. Ask questions. Also, recognize that it may not be easy for this person, either.
Q: If things get a little tense, what can we do to hit reset?
A: Just bundle up and get outside. Being in nature slows us down and brings us into the present moment.
We all get caught up in what we have to do — the routine — and sort of go on autopilot. Part of what the holidays do is mix it up. So embrace that. Be curious, be playful, try something new.
Q: What else can we do to help ourselves to happiness?
A: Get some sleep. Sleep is huge, especially when it comes to willpower and motivation and resilience and happiness.
In order to function well, you’ve got to be sleeping well, eating well and doing things you enjoy.