What Holiday Mishaps Teach Us About Contentment

It’s hard to ignore the excitement of the holiday season, isn’t it? Even if you’re not much into holiday cheer, the decked out Christmas trees, holiday party invites, and oh so convenient online gift guides can certainly suck you in. For many of us, the holidays evoke strong emotions, and we often try to recreate (or not) the holidays of years gone by. It isn’t the holidays if I haven’t watched at least one old school Christmas animation movie and countless versions of A Christmas Carol, all while eating my indulgent food choice of the moment. It brings me back to my childhood and I get to relive the comfort I experienced back then.

For many, the holidays are a break from the mundane activities of everyday life, and with the year coming to a close, it not only signals a time of celebration but also commonly triggers a slew of “what have I done with my life this past year” and “where am I going” type reflections. We may even put pressure on ourselves to make this next year, this holiday “the one” to trump all others, and conjure up elaborate ideas about what we want and expect it be like, sometimes to our demise. While it’s all in the name of happiness, the pressure we put on ourselves can make us feel anything but, because we become so narrowly focused on fixing what isn’t right.

But real happiness or contentment is often removed from the circumstances around it. Contentment, understood as a deep sense of happiness, doesn’t go away with bad experiences but rather grows over time. Here are four simple lessons holiday mishaps can teach us about contentment.

1. Making merry takes work.

Where does your perception of the holidays come from—television and movies, blogs and websites, your family or others? When I think about the holidays, I imagine people laughing and having a good time around the Christmas tree with drinks in hand, and burning logs in the background. Or children by the tree opening presents in their pajamas with wrapping paper and bows sprawled out all over the living room floor. Whatever perception you have of the holidays, good or bad, it likely impacts the holiday you experience.

We strive for their idea of the perfect holiday and when it falls short, reactions can range anywhere from irritable to devastated.

Many strive for their idea of the perfect holiday, and when it falls short, reactions can range anywhere from irritable to devastated. There are tons of articles that feature holidays gone wrong, from burning the turkey, to children being nearly traumatized by taking pictures with Santa, to intense conflict that can cause a rift in families for years to come. And for those who need conditions to be absolutely perfect before they can be happy, the holidays, those times when you really need things to be just right, can be a tough teacher.

Having to work so hard to be happy seems counterintuitive, but as with anything else, the holidays are never perfect. And when things go wrong, it can be a great opportunity to hone in on what you value most— a holiday that goes your way or time spent with loved ones? Or maybe you prefer solitude and value your alone time.  Often values conflict and you may not be able to have it all. But defining your values and using them to guide what you expect from your holiday (and life in general) will certainly up your happiness game, and it’ll be much easier to make merry even when circumstances make you feel like bah-humbug.

2. If everything goes wrong during your holiday, as least you have cute slippers.

In order for positive experiences to have a long standing impact on us, we must make a conscious effort to focus on them.

Or whatever it is you’re happy about. That is, (at the risk of sounding Pollyannaish) it really is good for your mental health and well-being to focus on the positive, no matter how minute it might be.  In fact, research shows that our brain is wired to respond more intensely to negative experiences than positive ones. It’s the body’s strange way of ensuring our survival. So if you have a negativity bias, it isn’t just you. Our positive emotions just aren’t stored as easily in long-term memory as negative ones, although emotional resources are strengthened through positive experiences. So in order for positive experiences to have a long standing impact on us, we must make a conscious effort to focus on them. And the holidays offer lots of opportunities to practice this. For every gift exchange that goes wrong, party invite you expected to get but didn’t, and failed DIY holiday decorating project, you can find something good even if it’s simply a sunny day or a smile from a stranger, and of course, cozy slippers. Even less than stellar days offer opportunities to be hyper-focused on positive experiences, we just have to pay attention to them. And the more you do it, the more you will turn transient states into longstanding emotional memories that foster the deep-seated satisfaction and contentment we all yearn for.

3. Santa IS real.

Some time ago, my boy child asked me if Santa was real. At that pivotal moment I paused to consider how I should answer such a question that could possibly alter the remainder of his childhood as he once knew it. Still not knowing what to say, I said, “Do you get gifts at Christmas?” And he replied, “yes.” With which I shot back “So I guess he’s real to you.” Surprisingly, my son said no more about it and walked away. So I figured I had answered sufficiently, at least for the time being.

But the more I thought about my response, the more I realized it really wasn’t that far from the truth. Santa was real to him. Not the jolly, big guy in a red suite Santa. But the spirit of Santa was real and palpable to him through me and others. Because I connected his understanding of Santa— an elusive idea, to getting gifts—a direct sensory experience, it was more personal to him and he was able to comprehend and accept it. When we are able to relate to a situation and recognize it as part of our human experience, it gives satisfaction and happiness a place to rest. This idea may also explain why children who love the concept of Santa, scream at the top of their lungs when faced with a real live Santa. The physical presence of Santa, a stranger, is overwhelming and not at all a relatable part of their human day to day experience. During this season of cheer, we are just as likely to experience disappointments as we are during any other time of the year, and maybe even more so due to high expectations. So it may be helpful to consider those moments of our lives that feel relatable, manageable, and use them to foster a sense of contentment and happiness in spite of the stressors we experience during the holidays and beyond.

4. The perfect gift may not be what you expect.

If you are ever inclined to compare yourself to others (and we’ve all been guilty of it), the holidays sure make it easy to do. One look at a beautiful holiday table spread and it may be hard to resist the urge to buy all new tableware. And although I tell myself I don’t need to buy as many decorations this year because I’ve accumulated so much, I always see something new that I just have to have.  We are constantly scanning our environment, even though we don’t always know it, assessing our surroundings, and determining where we fall compared to what we see. If we fall short, we may feel  demoralized.

If you like something someone else has, compliment them (and mean it) rather than wishing for it

If we consider ourselves to have more than others, we might feel anxious about losing what we have.  Such comparisons can cause a lot of emotional damage if left unchecked. Fortunately, there is at least one antidote to this dilemma, and that is, focus on giving to others. This is the season of giving after all and as my mother always used to say, if you like something someone else has, compliment them (and mean it). Tell them you enjoy or like what they have, and you’ll not only feel better about them and yourself, any pangs of jealously will diminish. Really, it works— if you mean it. And while you may think you’re kind words are just a nice gift for someone else, it’s really the perfect gift to give to yourself.