Do you ever feel like the holiday season comes with an unwritten script you struggle to follow? From buying the perfect gifts to hosting the ideal holiday party to posting that flawless family photo on Instagram, the pressure to conform to societal expectations can be especially overwhelming during the holidays. In its annual holiday mental health poll, the telehealth platform Sesame found that nearly two-thirds (64%) of U.S. adult respondents reported an increase in stress levels during the holiday season.
“Many people tend to expect that this time of year flows smoothly, and yet this is not always the case,” Bryana Kappadakunnel, a licensed marriage and family therapist and founder of Conscious Mommy online parenting community, tells Fortune. “Someone inevitably gets sick, something often gets canceled, and the high hopes you have for the perfect gathering may not be matched with reality. Perhaps you spent a lot of time and effort on someone’s gift, only for them to seem disinterested and for you to now feel disappointed.”
The expanded to-do list is one source of added holiday stress, but perhaps even more pernicious is the unspoken expectation of how we’re supposed to feel during the holidays—happy, grateful, connected.
The problem with this script is that we can’t control our emotions. And thinking that we’re supposed to feel a certain way can make us feel even worse when those feelings don’t naturally surface. We feel bad, and then we feel bad about feeling bad. The shame spiral of failing to experience the expected “holiday happiness” can make us feel even lonelier and less happy.
Unfortunately, we can’t just force ourselves to have holiday cheer. Trying too hard to be happy tends not to work. In fact, researchers have found that not only does trying to make ourselves feel happy not work, it can actually backfire and make us feel less happy, a phenomenon psychologists refer to as the paradox of happiness.
Trying to force out our negative thoughts doesn’t work much better. Consciously trying to suppress our negative thoughts can also backfire, making the unwanted thoughts even more accessible, a phenomenon known in therapy circles as the rebound effect.
Alane Daugherty, Ph.D., co-director of the Mind and Heart Research Lab at California Polytechnic State University, Pomona and author of Unstressed, says that trying to force an inauthentic experience is one of the biggest mistakes she sees people making regarding gratitude during the holidays. “They may feel guilt, indebtedness, unworthiness or ambivalence instead, yet try and force gratitude,” she says.
The good news is that even though we can’t force our feelings, there is something we do have control over: our practices.
Here are three ways to practice cultivating gratitude, connection, and happiness this holiday season:
Practice gratitude with the “George Bailey effect”
We often think of gratitude as a “warm and fuzzy feeling,” but gratitude is deeper than just a feeling according to Martin Seligman, the Zellerbach Family Professor of Psychology at the University of Pennsylvania, and the late Chris Peterson, the former Arthur F. Thurnau Professor of Psychology at the University of Michigan. As they define it in their book Character Strengths and Virtues, gratitude is “being aware of and thankful for the good things that happen; taking time to express thanks.” This is something we can do even if we’re not currently feeling the warm and fuzzies.
We don’t have to try to feel grateful about everything to get the benefits of gratitude. Instead of trying to force our thoughts, Daugherty says, “it is far more effective to focus on something for which we are truly grateful, even if it is small, and rest in that felt experience.”
If you want to practice cultivating gratitude this holiday season, try what Minkyung Koo, Assistant Professor in the Anderson School of Management at the University of New Mexico, and colleagues call the “George Bailey effect”: : think of something specific you feel grateful for and then think of ways this thing or event might never have happened or might never have been part of your life. Considering how the good things in our lives are a bit surprising can help us combat one of the biggest gratitude killers: adaptation.
Design intentional gatherings
If you’re feeling lonely this holiday season, you are not alone. According to a recent Meta-Gallup poll that surveyed more than 140 countries, nearly a quarter of people reported feeling very or fairly lonely. Young adults were particularly likely to report feeling lonely and isolated. Loneliness is so widespread that the U.S. Surgeon General Dr. Vivek Murthy issued a public health advisory on our epidemic of loneliness and isolation, noting that around 50% of adults in the U.S. reported being lonely in recent years.
Loneliness is not a feeling we can just magically change, but we can work on cultivating our connections by making our gatherings more intentional. As strategic advisor and author Priya Parker reminds us in her book The Art of Gathering, “Connection doesn’t happen on its own. You have to design your gatherings for the kinds of connections you want to create.”
When planning any sort of gathering, we need to consider the purpose, advises Parker. We need to move from the what (office holiday party, family Thanksgiving dinner, baby shower, etc.) to the why. Why are we bringing people together? When we come up with one reason, we need to ask why that matters and keep digging until we find the underlying value. That’s how we can design gatherings that are meaningful rather than aimless and awkward.
Holiday get togethers might not be flawless, but “if you accept the imperfections and stay present to the interactions and relationships, you can experience moments of deep meaning and authentic connection,” says Robin D. Stone, a Licensed Mental Health Counselor and wellness coach who runs Muse & Grace Mental Health Counseling Services in midtown Manhattan.
Focus your attention on what matters
If we want deep happiness, we can’t just aim directly at it or we’re likely to feel disappointed. Happiness is best pursued indirectly by engaging in meaningful and worthwhile activities—such as nurturing relationships, creating art, pursuing hobbies, and helping others.
During the holiday rush, we need to be particularly careful to not let these things get crowded out by unimportant details. The more attention we give to trying to achieve holiday perfection in our decorations and outfits and Instagram posts, the less attention we will have for really connecting. If we want to allow for connection this holiday season, we need to be willing to let go of some of the less important things that compete for our attention during the holidays, so we can focus more of our attention on the things we really care about and that will be more likely to bring us—and others—genuine happiness.
We might not be able to fake our feelings, but if we put in the work to cultivate gratitude, connection, and happiness, the feelings will often eventually follow.