Tis the season for bloggers and columnists everywhere to write about surviving Christmas. The quest for a stress-free Christmas appears universal and it’s easy to see why. Many of us haven’t truly powered down from work. We rush around finding presents, stocking up on food and drink, and we prepare for the rush of friends and relatives - with everything that implies. For other people Christmas represents a time of heightened emotion and loneliness and it’s a grim reminder of what they don’t have.
As a psychologist I’m guilty of sometimes focusing on the negative. Looking around at psychological literature there is no shortage of papers on fear, negative emotions, self-protective behaviors and the like, but surprisingly little in the way of how we understand the role of positive emotions like love and compassion. Positive emotions are not without purpose. They aren’t some residual aspect of personality that we can afford to ignore. So maybe instead of looking for ways to avoid stress this Christmas we might consider thinking about ways to boost positive emotions. In this way we become more expansive and creative in our thinking, we feel better about ourselves and, as it happens, we reduce stress.
There are a number of ways to prepare. If you’re in the mindset that you don’t have time for any of this you’re wrong (most activities are very simple and quick) and you’ll miss out. In the run up to Christmas you should try to do these things every day: One or more acts of kindness. Small acts of kindness represent ways in which we cement human relations. Even if you’re stuck in front of a computer screen you can email a small uplifting comment to someone. Holding the door for someone, helping with a heavy bag, giving up your seat on a train, helping someone off the bus and so on. The point about these examples is that you are thinking of other people and the cumulative effect of just being nice and being thoughtful is that you feel better about yourself.
Start putting together a portfolio of things that evoke positive memories and add to it daily. You might need a box for this because the contents will include things like photographs, gifts, letters, clothing, certificates and diplomas, newspaper clippings, badges and so on. You leave aside all things that evoke bad memories as this is about the stuff that brings you happy and proud memories.
Think about a humor diary. You simply jot down things that have made you smile or laugh. How does it work? Well if you do this as a daily activity you’ll find you are drawn to look for the lighter things in life. Your attention will be focused more towards the bizarre and downright amusing. Over time you’ll have something to look back on and you’ll find that your mood lifts simply because you’ve become more attuned to seeing the funny side of life.
I said at the outset of this post that we know less about the effect of positive emotions than we appear to know about the negative. These pre-Christmas suggestions can become part of your everyday life and there are a small but increasing number of studies that point to the long-term benefits. If you find the idea of a longer life, greater mental agility, improved performance, better relationships and more efficient decision making to your liking then this is the incentive to embrace ways to boost the positives in your life.
Jerry Kennard, Ph.D., is a chartered psychologist and associate fellow of the British Psychological Society. Jerry’s clinical background is in mental health and, most recently, higher education. He is the author of various self-help books and is co-founder of positivityguides.net.