9 Ways to Deal When Decking the Halls Doesn’t Bring You Joy

Expert tips for surviving the holidays
Puppy wrapped up in Christmas Lights

“It’s the most wonderful time of the year…” Ugh.

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When you’re not feeling festive, it can be lonely. Like you’re the only one who forgot to take their extra-large dose of Holiday Cheer.

But you’re not alone, says psychologist Scott Bea, PsyD. And there are strategies you can use to brighten your mood and survive the season.

Good reasons to hate the holidays

Who doesn’t love the holidays? Oh, plenty of people. Maybe you have a tense relationship with your family. Or you like your family, but they live far away, and you’ll be spending the holidays solo. Perhaps you’ve suffered a loss, and the season is stirring up painful memories.

Some people loathe the consumerism and gift-grabbing excess. Even those who like celebrating can get stressed out about blowing their budget or living up to others’ expectations of jolliness. And if you’re an introvert, holiday gatherings and work parties can feel like torture.

“There are all sorts of ways to feel bad this time of year,” says Dr. Bea. “And if you’re not feeling merry, all the forced merriment around you can make you feel even worse by comparison.”

Try to remember that there are others in your shoes. “We’re all in a battle with our own brains and trying to do the best we can,” Dr. Bea says.

Turn holiday depression on its head

If you’re feeling Grinchy, these tips can help you get through to the other side.

1. Don’t beat yourself up. If you aren’t in the holiday spirit, don’t give in to guilt or worry. Give yourself some much-deserved compassion. “Your feelings around the holidays are valid sentiments,” Dr. Bea says.

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2. Open up. Be honest with your friends and family about your feelings, Dr. Bea recommends. If you’ve lost a loved one and aren’t up for a party, say so. If your budget is tight, explain that to your family. Suggest drawing names or skipping gifts.

“Communication is the key to successful relationships. Communicate openly about these things without a sense of shame,” he says.

3. Underdo it. If ever there was a time not to keep up with the Joneses, it’s when the Joneses have erected a 12-foot Christmas tree, wrapped their house with 3 miles of twinkling lights and organized a neighborhood cookie swap.

Cut back where you can to keep holidays manageable. Skip holiday cards, give gift certificates instead of hand-knitted scarves, and RSVP your regrets to that overly fancy New Year’s party. “Dare to be imperfect,” Dr. Bea says. “Let your traditions evolve toward lower tension.”

4. Manage expectations. Before you chuck all your holiday traditions, though, talk to your family. Decide together which traditions make you feel good and which aren’t worth the work. “Remind your family that you’ll all benefit if you keep expectations reasonable,” Dr. Bea says.

5. Create new holiday traditions. If dinner with your dysfunctional family ruins your entire December, ask yourself: Do you really need to go through with it? Can you celebrate with friends instead? If all the feasting leaves you feeling sluggish and gross, plan a Hanukkah hike to counteract the latkes.

If you’re sad you won’t have anyone to smooch when the ball drops on New Year’s Eve, recruit a friend, and go to the movies instead. “If your old traditions haven’t been ideal, create some new traditions that are uniquely yours,” Dr. Bea suggests.

6. Crank up your self-care. Exercise, eating well, sleeping enough and otherwise taking care of yourself is something you should do all year. But it’s especially important to carve out time for self-care during the holidays. “These are the best gifts to give yourself,” Dr. Bea says.

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7. Counteract bad weather. Holidays often go hand-in-hand with chilly weather and dark, gloomy days. That alone can mess with your mood. On top of that, people tend to be more sedentary and less social during the winter.

Make a point to move your body and spend time with friends. If you experience seasonal depression, Dr. Bea recommends investing in a light therapy lamp to brighten your mood. 

8. Reach out to others. It can be lonely if you feel like the only one not basking in holiday happiness. Take some time to connect with others. Ask genuine questions to engage on a deeper level with the cousins you only see once a year. Reach out to friends who might be feeling overwhelmed or lonely.

“Giving the gift of our time and attention to others also activates good brain chemistry for ourselves,” Dr. Bea says.

9. You do you. Ultimately, the best way to survive the season is to be true to your needs and feelings. That doesn’t mean you should sneer at the way others celebrate, but you can choose to do things your way.

“It’s OK to be unconventional,” Dr. Bea says. “Find something of your own that brings you peace, and have a plan for how to make that happen.”

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