Skipping the Holidays? 15 Ways to Keep the Joy

Bummed about not seeing fam this year? Make the most of it with these expert tips on finding joy in other ways.

by Emily Shiffer Health Writer

Putting the kibosh on your holiday gatherings…and feeling a bit sad about it?

“One of our biggest sources of comfort are our loved ones. Because of the pandemic, there will be fewer in-person get-togethers,” says Stewart Shankman, Ph.D., chief of psychology at Northwestern University’s Feinberg School of Medicine in Chicago. “This disruption can lead to feelings of loneliness.” And according to recent U.S. Census Bureau data, a third of Americans are showing signs of clinical anxiety and depression.

With all these challenges, you may be looking for ways to make the most of it. Click through for expert tips on staying healthy and joyful this holiday season.

1. Keep Some of Your Holiday Routines

“If you regularly get together on Christmas Eve with certain people, still try and do that over Zoom,” says Shankman. “If you regularly make Hanukkah latkes for multiple families, have a "latke making" competition with those same families and then judge them over zoom. Be creative!”

2. Create a New Tradition

“Look for a new holiday tradition to implement in your own home and community that will bring some meaning or purpose to your life,” says Teralyn Sell, Ph.D., psychotherapist and brain health expert at The Addictions Academy in Menasha, WI. “This could be to volunteer serving meals or delivering gifts to families in need. It could also be something simpler, like cooking or baking a new recipe that you can continue to do every year. Giving yourself a sense of community and purpose is great for your brain chemistry. It will release dopamine engaging in your reward pathway and signaling a, ‘yes, let’s do that again’ response.”

3. Get Some High-Quality Exercise

“Our brains are built primarily to move our bodies, so the easiest way to influence things in our minds is to do something physical,” says Daniel Fulham O'Neill, M.D., sport psychologist and orthopedic surgeon at The Alpine Clinic in Littleton, NH. “After that cup of tea or coffee, get outdoors for a brisk walk, run, bike ride, or swim. Before supper, get out again throwing in some planks, sit ups, push-ups, skiing, golfing, kayaking, or surfing.” Activity unlocks the brain chemicals that make you feel better, that make you happier, and that connect your body to your mind.

4. Be Present in This Moment

“When we strengthen awareness, we are better able to manage our emotions in healthy ways,” says Cortland Dahl, Ph.D., chief contemplative officer at The Center for Healthy Minds at the University of Wisconsin-Madison. “As a result, we are in the driver’s seat instead of our automatic reactions running the show.” If you keep thinking about how awful the holidays will be without your family, stop and take a breath. Try focusing on an object, like your coffee cup in the morning. Or tuning into your breath when you’re feeling overwhelmed.

Dr. Dahl recommends this 10-minute seated meditation as a great way to find calm in the midst of chaos.

5. Create a Gratitude List

A little obvious? Yeah. But taking time to consider the things you are thankful for is still a powerful exercise. “This can be anything—your health, your family,” says Sherry Benton, Ph.D., psychologist and founder and chief science officer of TAO Connect in St. Petersburg, FL. “The act of practicing gratitude has been shown to increase happiness and reduce depression.”

6. Ask for Help

If you are feeling sad and lonely this holiday season, don’t be afraid to reach out to your friends or family for support. “Chances are they might be feeling the same way you are,” says Sell. “Don’t keep your emotions bottled inside, instead allow yourself to feel them and share them with others. This will allow you to experience some empathy for your situation and to support others as well.”

7. Listen to Music

“Listen to music—but not just any music, evocative music that reaches your soul,” says Dr. O’Neill. “Here’s the how: Play it LOUD. Stand up and conduct, dance, sway, sing, play air guitar. Close your eyes to emphasize your other senses.” This is what will release those positive brain hormones, adds Dr. O’Neill. Some artists that are guaranteed to put a smile on your face: Curtis Mayfield, Aretha Franklin, Marvin Gaye, arias by Pavoratti and Maria Callas, and just about anything by Yo Yo Ma.

8. Look at Your Expectations and Assumptions

Get curious about what you are feeling right now when you think about holidays without family. How does your body feel? What images pass through your mind? Don’t criticize these feelings; just acknowledge them. “Sometimes our expectations aren’t met, and our psychological well-being takes a hit,” says Dr. Dahl. “Insight is all about self-knowledge: inner clarity concerning our own thoughts, emotions, and beliefs and how they shape how we see the world, and especially how we see ourselves.” Once you acknowledge your feelings, you can start to understand them in a non-judgmental way.

9. Get Consistent Sleep

“Even though the days are getting shorter, try and go to sleep and wake up at the same time to maintain good ‘sleep hygiene’,” says Shankman. Researchers have found that prioritizing your pillow and getting more sleep is linked to overall happiness. In one study of 10,000 adults, people with insomnia were five times more likely to develop depression.

10. Engage Your Logical Mind

“When we are stuck in our emotional minds, things can snowball and feel much worse. The key to getting out of our emotional minds is to engage our logical mind,” says Sell. “For instance, when you are feeling sad and grief-stricken, take a minute to find the logic in the situation. It's like a fact-finding mission.”

Here’s an example.

“When your brain is giving you thoughts such as, ‘I’m miserable because I can’t see my parents this year... ,‘ replace it with, ‘I choose not to see my parents this year because seeing them could be dangerous for everyone,’” says Sell. It’s a shift in perspective that can shift your emotions right along with it.

11. Express Your Appreciation for Others

“Choose three people that you appreciate that you won’t be able to see this holiday. Bring them to your mind as you are doing this. Write down five things that you appreciate about each person (think qualities, skills, acts of kindness they have done, etc.). Do this with mindful awareness,” says Dr. Dahl. “Write a note of appreciation via email, text or letter to one of the people, and notice how you feel as you do this.” You might consider sending the note of appreciation to each of them.

12. Practice Mindfulness Meditation

“I always recommend mindfulness meditation as a daily practice. Feelings of distress and anxiety can be overwhelming,” says Benton. “These practices only take a few minutes a day and can help reduce stress and make you feel energized and refreshed.”

13. Spend Time With Animals

“Your local humane society would also welcome your holiday time and love, especially as the folks who work there might be looking for family time off,” says Dr. O’Neill. “Take a dog for a walk, pet a kitty, brush a horse.” And you’d not only be a gift to those fur babies—just being in the presence of animals will surely uplift you, too. “Charity given to any creature has been shown in study after study to raise our own spirits,” says Dr. O’Neill.

14. Write Down Why the Holidays Matter

“We need to stay connected to our values and principles amidst the ups and downs of everyday life,” says Dahl. “Can you spend some time writing down why the holidays matter to you?” But don’t stop there; Write down why that’s important to you. “Just keep going until you arrive at a clear sense of purpose that highlights a value or motivation that truly nourishes you,” says Dahl. For example: I love spending time with my family during the holidays because we laugh so much. It’s the place I feel comfortable being myself and I miss that. Is there something I can do to still feel this on that day?

15. Make Yourself SMILE

“Physically smiling engages multiple muscles in your face which tells your brain that you are happy, that things are going well. This is perhaps a great ruse we have kept through evolution, but so what,” says Dr. O’Neill. “By smiling, whether you are feeling it or faking it, you release endorphins and other wonderful brain chemicals.” Additionally, anyone who sees you—whether via Zoom or otherwise—will be contaminated by your joyful appearance and have the urge to smile, too.

Emily Shiffer
Meet Our Writer
Emily Shiffer

Emily Shiffer is a former digital web producer for Men’s Health and Prevention, and is currently a freelancer writer specializing in health, wellness, weight loss, and fitness. She is currently based in Pennsylvania and loves all things antiques, cilantro, and American history.