7 Ways to Experience the Often-Elusive Joy of Christmas

12/20/2013 10:10 am ET | Updated Feb 19, 2014

There's a lot of pressure this time of year....

Whether you celebrate Christmas, Hanukkah, Kwanzaa, or some other holiday, this can be a really challenging season. Not only are you expected to manage multiple extra projects (house decorating, present giving, and family visiting), but also you're supposed to feel happier than ever (as the expectation is it's the most wonderful time of the year). Talk about difficult!

This can lead to a lot of guilt when you don't feel that you're living up to the ideals you have in your head or when you do live up to those standards but feel miserable while doing so and then feel even worse because you're supposed to feel jolly.

As a time coach, I've been thinking a lot about this topic and also testing different strategies to optimize both external organization while maintaining internal peace. Here are my seven best strategies to experience the often-elusive joy of Christmas.

1. Focus on the Good: Whatever you focus on expands so if you're looking for something to be upset about, you'll find it. If once you find it, you keep repeating it over and over in your head, the smallest thing like someone cutting you off on the way to work can ruin your whole day. You can't prevent every inconvenience in your life, but you can choose your response to them. Choose to let go of what's bothering you and practice gratitude for all that is in your life. It's one of the best medicines according to The Neuroscience of Why Gratitude Makes Us Healthier:

"In one study on gratitude, conducted by Robert A. Emmons, Ph.D., at the University of California at Davis and his colleague Mike McCullough at the University of Miami, randomly assigned participants were given one of three tasks. Each week, participants kept a short journal. One group briefly described five things they were grateful for that had occurred in the past week, another five recorded daily hassles from the previous week that displeased them, and the neutral group was asked to list five events or circumstances that affected them, but they were not told whether to focus on the positive or on the negative. Ten weeks later, participants in the gratitude group felt better about their lives as a whole and were a full 25 percent happier than the hassled group. They reported fewer health complaints, and exercised an average of 1.5 hours more."

For those idealists and perfectionists, I'm going to really challenge you to focus on what IS not what is not. For example, get your mind off the fact that one family member couldn't make it home for the holidays and choose to celebrate everyone who is there. You and all your company will really appreciate it.

2. Lower Your Expectations: As I cover extensively in my book in Chapter five on realistic expectations, our feelings about our situation have more to do with what we expected than what actually happened. One of the biggest ways to increase your joy is to decrease what you require of yourself. To illustrate this point, let's run through a couple of different potential expectations.

Recipe for Stress: Everything must go perfectly, especially my performance. My home must be perfectly decorated. My meals must be perfectly prepared, preferably from scratch. I must have a card or present for everyone I encounter for the month of December. My entire family must be happy all the time. If everything is not under control, everyone is not happy, and I make even the slightest error or omission, Christmas is a total and utter failure.

Recipe for Joy: I will do the best I can within my ability and capacity of time, money, and energy to make the holidays special for those closest to me. I may or may not be able to do everything I would prefer to do. Other people may or may not approve of my choices or appreciate my efforts. I might burn the rolls or forget to wrap the present for Aunt Sarah or arrive later than I said I would to an event. That's OK. I'm human. The point of the holiday is not to prove how I can rival Martha Stewart. The point is to express and receive love from those who care for me and whom I care for too.

If you need a little extra help with this concept of "letting go," this article on Satisficing could be of assistance. Here's what the researcher who wrote this article has to say:

"Going into a task worried that your contribution may not be enough will actually make you more likely to fail. Or perhaps it may prepare you to succeed, but often at the cost of being utterly stressed, and not enjoying the process itself. What's the point of that?"

3. Forgive Often: Along with being more forgiving and understanding toward yourself, you have a much greater chance of having a peaceful Christmas season if you're also empathetic toward others. Especially if you're hosting the holiday celebrations, this is a high but worthy challenge. This means forgiving your sister if she points out that she thinks your new dress is less than flattering, or your cousin if he arrives an hour late when you repeatedly had reminded everyone that it was important to you to start on time. It means forgiving your mom when she re-folds the napkins in a different way after you already had them how you wanted them and your kids when their screams overshadow the calming music you had carefully chosen.

When you notice yourself about to snap back, take a deep breath and ask yourself, "Is this really worth it or should I just let it go?" Most of the time, the right answer is to let it go. Yes, it might feel temporarily good to take a jab back at someone, but ultimately that won't build your relationships and create good memories. Make it a point to focus on charity within your own home, meaning that you give of forgiveness, self-control, and kindness in abundance and choose to value relationships over rules.

4. Transform Worry Into Wonder: I personally put this principle into action last weekend, when in the midst of the Christmas shopping, present wrapping, and card writing, my bedroom ended up looking like Santa's workshop gone wild. Without elves to help, it's hard to keep everything in order and tissue paper was everywhere. At first I enjoyed the process, but when I started yawning and realized that even though my bedtime loomed imminently, my work was far from done. Initially, anxiety seized me.

Fortunately, I've been reading an excellent book called The Big Leap that taught me that when you experience worry, there's typically some positive emotion that's trying to come through. I turned my attention away from the worry that I felt and realized that the positive emotion below the surface was a deep desire to show so many people how much I cared about them. I stopped for a moment to savor that warm feeling that no gifts could sufficiently capture. Next day, I prayed a little prayer that all those I cared about would feel loved even if my gifts could not adequately express all I felt inside. I was at peace.

5. Borrow From Your Past: Indulging in nostalgia can have a powerful, strong effect on you. By the power of association, you can re-live the memories from years gone by. Consider making cookies from your childhood, watching an old movie, listening to cherished music, or reading a children's book. Personally, I treat myself to a good cry every year when reading The Year of the Perfect Christmas Tree: An Appalachian Story. Referring to something that stirs your heart can help break the tyranny of the urgent and help you remember what the season is all about.

6. Go to Church: If you're from a Christian faith background and used to go to church on Christmas but haven't for a while, consider going back. The holidays will most likely feel empty for you without it since the spiritual experience and significance is part of your heritage. If you aren't from a Christian-faith background consider visiting your place of worship or simply taking extra time to meditate, think, or pray. Hope and peace aren't items that can be tied with a bow and placed under your tree, they're spiritual and emotional experiences that you need to make space for in your heart.

7. Volunteer at a Shelter or Hospital: Spending time serving those who are in more difficult situations than you are at the moment has many benefits, but I'll share a few that directly relate to experiencing more joy in this season. First, you get a huge reality check on how fortunate you are. Maybe you don't live in a palatial mansion or look like you did when you were 18. But if you have a roof over your head and aren't battling a life threatening illness, you're doing much better than many. Second, you will be amazed at the joy and gratitude that the people you serve radiate. Seeing those emotions in them is one of clearest demonstrations of how your emotional state has little to do with your circumstances. Finally, you'll feel the warmth inside that is the gift of giving. It is truly better to give than to receive--especially when it's done without expectation of anything in return.

So there you have it... seven ways you can experience true joy this Christmas season.

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About Real Life E®
Elizabeth Grace Saunders is the founder and CEO of Real Life E® a time coaching and training company that empowers individuals who feel guilty, overwhelmed and frustrated to feel peaceful, confident and accomplished through an exclusive Schedule Makeover™ process. She is an expert on achieving more success with less stress. Real Life E® also increases employee productivity, satisfaction and work/life balance through custom training programs.

McGraw Hill published her first book The 3 Secrets to Effective Time Investment: How to Achieve More Success with Less Stress. Elizabeth contributes to blogs like Lifehacker, Harvard Business Review, Forbes, and the 99U blog on productivity for creative professionals. She was selected as one of the Top 25 Amazing Women of the Year by Stiletto Woman.