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  • Ah, the holidays. They’re supposed to be the “most wonderful time of the year,” and yet they have a way of turning into the most stressful time of the year.

    Image: The Nine Rooms of Happiness
    Hyperion Books

    Maybe it’s because your mother-in-law is staying with you for a week (and you suspect she’s always had it in for you), or you’re anxious about over-spending on giftsbut want to be generous, or perhaps you’re spending the holidays alone this year and are feeling a little lonely. Whatever the source of your angst—family dynamics, finances, a lack of self-confidence, painful memories—you’re certainly not alone, and there are solutions.

    Along with New York psychiatrist Catherine Birndorf, M.D., who co-authored "The Nine Rooms of Happiness" with me, I’ve devised some simple fixes for seven of the season’s most stressful situations. You deserve to have the joy you desire this season, so start today to put the merry and bright back into your days!

  • The stressor: Old family dynamics die hard

    The scenario: “Every year my mother comes to stay with me for Christmas, and I see myself revert back into my teenage years: I shamefully snap at her or end up ignoring her just like I did when I was a child.  Sometimes I still feel like she’s invading my space, even though I invited her into it!”

    The solution: Perhaps if you give your mother a little more of your time, she’d ask for a lot less of you. That might not be the answer you were hoping for, but hear me out: The problem may stem from not investing enough interest in your mother outside of “special days,” like holidays or her birthday.

    Try being proactive and calling her up out of the blue for a 15-minute chat, or if she lives nearby, ask her to join you for a nice family dinner on Sunday night at your house. You could even offer to come get her, check out the new work she’s done reorganizing an old bedroom or cleaning out the library. These are projects that bore you when she calls you up in the middle of a busy day to tell you about, but when you show a little interest, it works magic on her mood and the dynamic of your relationship.

    It may not seem “important” to you, but if she’s planted a whole new flower garden or done something she’s proud of it would be kind (and loving) to go to her house and ooh and aah the way she did when you showed her your favorite new art project as a kid. It’s not insincere, it’s loving, and the emotion is the authentic part. Remember all those years she watched your ballet recitals or your teams play (and win and lose) at sports. Now it’s your turn to offer a little time and effort. You can’t change her, but you can change yourself ...  and that will definitely change the dynamic between you two and make not just the holidays, but also every day, a lot happier.

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  • The stressor: You’re a perfectionist — and things aren’t perfect

    The scenario: “This is the only time of year that my entire extended family gets together, so I want everything to be perfect. But inevitably, something goes wrong (the ham is overcooked; the Christmas tree lights short out), and it ruins the holidays for me. How can I let it go and just enjoy my time with my loved ones?”

    The solution: Many women — myself included! — have a tendency to set unrealistic goals for themselves, especially this time of year. I'm going to cook a flawless holiday feast. I'm going to find the ideal gift for everyone in my family. We do this even though we know that perfection is a completely unattainable goal (there’s a reason the phrase “nobody’s perfect” exists, after all!). Worse, striving too hard to be perfect can cause stress and anxiety, and potentially shorten your lifespan, according to recent research at Trinity Western University in Canada. To help us all relax and go with the flow this season, try these strategies for easing a bit of the pressure we place on ourselves.

    First, write a list of what you're going to focus on today — the stuff that truly deserves priority in your personal or professional life — and realize that obsessing about the other little things isn't necessary. "It's important to recognize who you are and how you do things," explains Dr. Birndorf. "Once you have this self-knowledge you can start to determine where obsessing over details matters and where you can let it go." For instance, finding some one-on-one time with your aging grandmother may be necessary. Spending 15 minutes wrapping her Christmas gift just so? Not so much.

    And while this may go against your instincts, make time for you. "A lot of people think taking time for yourself is selfish," says Dr. Birndorf. "It's not selfish—it’s self-preservation. You're no good to anyone else if you're depleted from trying to exceed every expectation all day long. Allowing yourself the time and space to take care of yourself is essential, it's not optional." Hear, hear! So everyday, choose something you're going to do for yourself—whether it's going for a run before your house guests wake up, slipping off to get a manicure during the group trip to the shopping mall, or simply sneaking away to meditate for five minutes in a quiet corner of your home. Write it down and do it.

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  • The stressor: Low body confidence is holding you back

    The scenario: “I’m actually a pretty social person, and usually I look forward to party hopping during the holiday season. But lately, when I look in the mirror and see cellulite or my belly bulge, I feel horrible about myself and it ruins my day — and I don’t feel like going out or seeing anyone. This is the time of year when I should be thinking about and helping others who have real problems like hunger and homelessness, and yet I’m worried about something so superficial!”

    The solution: Everyone has a bad fill-in-the-blank (body, hair, skin) day now and again, and feeling upset and even annoyed about it is totally allowed — and par for the course. But it’s not worthy of ruining your day or keeping you away from your friends when life is short, time is of the essence, and all those other clichés that actually make sense here!

    To silence your body-bashing and self-loathing, try to figure out why it started to begin with: Have you been mindlessly eating amidst all the holiday festivities lately and gained some weight? (In which case you may be angry with yourself but need to get to the bottom of your stress, not stress about your bottom!) Are you stressed about an ongoing life issue like relationship woes or work worry? Or have you been trying to diet and exercise and not seeing the results?

    Sometimes we can change our bodies by eating better and working out more, but it can take time and you need to be patient. (Plus remember that genetics is a factor, and while you can move the needle, you may need to make peace with the body you have.)

    Whatever the case, thinking that erasing cellulite or sculpting six-pack abs is going to bring you everlasting happiness is just plain false. It may feel good to be trim and fit, or not so good when your clothes are fitting more snugly than usual, but assuming your weight is within a healthy range (you’re neither too thin nor too heavy, either of which can compromise your health), then figuring out why the focus on looks is preoccupying your precious time is essential. Most likely something else is gnawing at you, since others (friends, family and lovers) won’t define you by whether or not you have cellulite—chances are they didn’t even notice.

    Now the question is how to shift your focus away from that one little body part and on to your other attributes, like your sense of humor, your loyalty to friends, your great ideas at the office, etc. See yourself as a whole person, not just a dimple. Forgive yourself a few flaws. Everyone has them. As Dr. Birndorf and I like to say: Walk away from the mirror; it’s just a cheap piece of glass!

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  • The stressor: You’re lonely

    The scenario: “I hate being single, especially now — there’s no one to kiss when the ball drops! I seem to hinge all of my self-worth on whether I’m in a relationship. How can I learn to be content on my own?”

    The solution: Between Disney fairy tales and Jerry “You complete me!” Maguire, it's no wonder so many women think finding the right guy is the be-all and end-all. (Hint: It's not!) To remind yourself that you're OK on your own, reflect on what being in a relationship means to you. Do you long for the companionship? Do you buy into society's expectation that everyone should have a significant other? Or does being coupled up make you feel more secure?

    Once you ID what's driving your fixation, you can reevaluate that belief—for example, do you really care about whether you're “supposed” to be part of a pair? Are there other ways you can feel secure in yourself, maybe by pursuing passions that make you happy? By refocusing your energy toward nonromantic goals, you'll start to see that there are myriad sources of fulfillment besides "finding the one."

    Finally, remember that being alone is sometimes a choice—maybe you’re single because you broke off a relationship with a guy who was selfish or non-attentive or who just didn’t make you feel as special as you deserve to feel. If that’s the case, flying solo is definitely the better option! As you’re figuring these things out, don’t let it prevent you from having fun: Go to that New Year’s party alone or with a girlfriend, or say yes to the friend-of-a-friend who asked you to be their date, even if you hardly know him.

    You never know who you’ll connect with when you put yourself out there,and when you do find someone who makes you happy and delivers what you truly want from a partner (and you will!), you'll feel more satisfied because you'll have more going on than just your relationship.

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  • The stressor: Others’ success makes you feel like a failure

    The scenario: “My neighbor throws a great New Year’s bash every year, and it’s a great time to catch up with old friends I might not have seen for months. But this year I’m feeling unsure about my life and job, so I don’t really want to share what’s new with me. And when I hear about good things happening to others (so-and-so got engaged or a big raise at work), I beat myself up.  How do I stop feeling this way?”

    The solution: It's natural to reflect on your own accomplishments when you hear about others' success. But these news flashes can also spur you to reassess the choices you have in your life. Dr. Birndorf offers this example: “Recently, one of my patients found out about a friend's promotion, then came to me wondering how she could get ahead at work; she then asked her boss for more responsibility.” In other words, the best way to not focus on other people's achievements is to concentrate on things that make you happy.

    You don't have to tackle everything at once. Start with whatever feels most unsatisfying: If you worry you're trapped in a dead-end job, ask yourself what you're getting out of the position that keeps you stuck. Once you figure out what fulfills you, you'll be less apt to criticize yourself when friends make strides—because you'll be making your own.

  • The stressor: You don’t get along with your in-laws

    The scenario: “I just can’t seem to do anything right when it comes to my husband’s parents and siblings. I try to make them happy by visiting them over the holidays and following all of their family traditions, and they still give me the cold shoulder. But when I try to talk to my husband about it, he says I’m being overly sensitive.”

    The solution: The real trouble here may be stemming from what’s happening in your relationship with your husband — not his family. If he doesn’t stand up for you when his mom “forgets” to set your place a the table, or if he suggests you “let it go” when his sister makes a hurtful comment rather than defending you, it’s time to acknowledge that there’s a disconnect between the two of you when you’re on your hubby’s home turf.

    To reconnect with your husband, look for areas of common ground that exist no matter where you are — maybe it’s your kids, or that you both love your early morning jogs together, or that you both (secretly) hate his mother’s cooking — and use them as an opportunity to relate and strengthen solidarity as a couple.

    It might also help to think about your own contributions to the disconnect: Are you pitching in with the duties at your in-laws’ home? Are you being as flexible as you think about following their family traditions instead of your own (or do you sometimes make little, derogatory comments under your breath)? The point isn’t to “win” or occupy the high moral ground; the point is to strengthen your bond with your husband and, in the process, the rest of his family, so you can all enjoy the holidays.

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  • The stressor: Your bank account balance is dropping — fast

    The scenario: “I’m totally stressed over how much I tend to spend during the holiday season—and who I should spend it on! I don’t want to leave anyone out by not buying gifts, but I simply can’t afford to include every single person on my list (my coworkers, kid’s teacher, landlord). How can I give without going overboard?”

    The solution: Money is tight for just about everyone these days, so odds are the people in your life are experiencing the same kind of stress over gift-giving that you are. So why not take the angst out of it for both of you by acknowledging it and making a date to spend some time together instead: For instance, hand deliver a holiday card to your coworkers or child’s teacher and say, “Rather than exchanging gifts this year, let’s grab coffee some time soon, just you and me,” or write a nice note on some winter-themed stationary inviting your landlord to your apartment for a cocktail or a slice of your famous pumpkin pie and slip it into her mailbox.

    Research suggests we often derive more lasting happiness and satisfaction from experiences than from material items, so you’ll both get more out of it—without putting a serious dent in your savings accounts. It’s a win-win-win!

Video: Simple steps for shutting out holiday stress

  1. Closed captioning of: Simple steps for shutting out holiday stress

    >>> this morning on "today's" family, happiness and the holidays. 'tis the season for joy and fun and for many americans stress and unhappiness. what can we all do to help our holidays be merry and bright. we have the author of the happiness project joining us with katherine burg door of. they are joining us to give us some sense about all of this. i should also mention that you two are friends. what would you say among the man reasons why so many people get stressed out and unhappy, they run happy this particular time of the year?

    >> one thing i found in my blog, is that for a lot of people the holidays are like a high school or college reunion , you're with a lot of people you haven't seen in a while, they're like, hey, did you get that job? do you have a boyfriend yet? and so one of the things you can do is to really say to yourself, what are the questions i'm going to get from my nosey aunt sally and what's the answer i can give so that i can handle it the way i want to.

    >> and what are you learning from your blog, katherine.

    >> i think that happiness from the holidays is a bit of an oxymoron. i think that happiness and holidays don't always go together. i think stress and sadness and difficulty. it's also a beautiful time of the year, but the expectations that it's going to be great, it's going to be perfect, that you wait all year for this time of year and it doesn't live up to your expectations. it's so disappointing.

    >> one person wrote us an e-mail. i am not on speaking terms with my mother just brings sadness and frustration. it's a kind of things that you're talking about, the balance between what you really wish it would be and the realities of our lives.

    >> and if you can know that in advance and be prepared and think that it's probably going to be the same old, same old, even though you want it to be or wish it to be different, you can prepare for it, but like gretchen said, it's helpful to not feel as sad or disappointed.

    >> people play an important role because they really do keep those traditions going and that makes everybody happy in the long run because traditions do add to happiness. but if you're that person who says it's not going to be perfect, other people are not going to be dressed the way i want them to be, or behaving the way i want that. that can overshadow the day. it's important to have that sense of celebration of the holiday and let something slide if it turns out.

    >> and you can make new traditions, some people who are wistful for the past may realize that now is it. and if it didn't work, create new memories.

    >> that's an interesting point.

    >> make new things with your family, feel differently.

    >> i like to tell my kids that perfect is boring. it really is because it sort of makes this kind of limit on what can happen. and with relationships with your family, yes, it's going to be intense, but there's also opportunity and recognizing what probably is not going to be so much fun, but creating opportunity for something that could be fun.

    >> sometimes the things that go wrong are the things that make the best memories, so the day the christmas tree falls over er the cat gets the turkey. at the moment you feel devastated because you have this whole big mess and it's not perfect, but in years to come everybody's laughing about it.

    >> things that are not going to be like how we expect them to be, like they're in storybooks, what do you say to yourself when that happens? what's the message?

    >> the message i would say is expect conflict. expect it's going to be difficult. expect zafts are going to happen. and have fun with that.

    >> and also know that conflict is okay, that it's all right if there's conflict, it doesn't mean that you don't love your family and that you're not having a good time. but they may drive your crazy, but conflict is fine.

    >> i find a lot of joy in the little things that our family has passed on, the certain things we eat. we wear bells around our necks on christmas eve and that can kind of unify people.

    >> those little traditions that let you feel connected to the past and give you that connection to your childhood or connection to the way your original family did things can really add on to the holiday.

    >> thank you so much. some good suggestion this is morning on how to have a happy holiday .

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