12/24/2010 09:54 am ET | Updated Nov 17, 2011

Are Your Holidays Not As Happy As They Should Be? Reinvent Them

As the holidays approach, they bring good news and bad news.

The good news is that the holidays are coming. That is also the bad news.

It does not matter if the economy is good or bad, if the country is at peace or at war. As soon as the Halloween decorations go back in the attic, there's a familiar knot in the stomach: "Uh-oh. They're back!"

Although the holidays are supposed to be festive, many people feel like they are being ambushed when Hanukah, Christmas, Kwanzaa and New Year's Day roll around. They bring deadlines. There are a lot of obligations. Cards have to be sent. Presents have to be ready by a particular date. We are bombarded by messages that tell us we have to buy all that stuff for our loved ones. Add that to the relentless multi-tasking that we have to do everyday.

Very often the pressure to make everything perfect -- the decorations, the food -- adds another level of stress. So does having to spend time with people whom you don't see for the rest of the year, or people whom you don't even particularly like.

For many people, it's a painful time. They may feel disappointed in themselves if they don't feel happy and upbeat around the holidays. If they have gone through a divorce, break-up or a loss, the holidays accentuate feelings of loneliness.

It was not always like this. If you ask your parents or grandparents what their childhood holidays were like, many describe them as simple. They had more to do with family getting together than with having a plasma TV, a Lexus with a bow on top, or an iPad or Wii for our kids. Now at Christmas and Hanukkah, we have been programmed to expect to get these things as signs of love. We are also expected to give at this level. Every holiday season, it seems that there is more financial pressure.

But you can choose to re-invent the holidays so that they become a happy, meaningful time of year that you and your family can anticipate with pleasure. Here are some ideas:

  1. Release tension. Treat yourself to 20 minutes of relaxation a day. More than 30 years of Harvard research proves that the best antidote to stress is relaxation. Close your eyes and listen to music that you enjoy. Take a relaxing bath. Light a candle and read something inspirational or comforting.
  2. Train your mind. Give yourself permission to feel relaxed instead of pressured. When you start to feel overwhelmed or stressed out, say something like, "I deserve to relax" or "What can I do right now that will make me feel calm?"
  3. Review your holiday traditions. Make a list of the things about the holidays that you want to keep doing. Maybe every year you have lunch with a few friends you don't see the rest of the year. Or have a long talk with a friend who lives far away.
  4. Create new traditions. Find an activity that has nothing to do with gift-giving and make that your new holiday tradition. Choose a day when you and your family go to the country to get a freshly cut tree. Schedule an evening to go look at the brightest holiday decorations in your town or neighborhood. Invite your friends to a home-made brunch sometime during the holiday season.
  5. Make a "Not-to-Do" List. Take something off your holiday "to-do" list and put it on your "not-to-do" list. Eliminate non-essential obligations, excessive purchases, standing in line at Toys'R'Us, and holiday parties you do not want to attend. Make sure that for every item on your holiday "not-to-do" list you spend the time doing something for yourself: Call a friend. Take a nap in front of the fireplace. Plan a winter vacation. Sit in a café sipping cappuccino or tea and watch the world go by. Give yourself permission to smile. This is your time!
  6. Align yourself with the spirit of the season. Make charitable donations that make you feel good. Make a donation in someone's name to give a blind person the gift of sight. The Heifer Foundation provides Third World families with farm animals. Listen to a coworker who may be going through a family crisis. Offering to help others builds stronger connections.

Are the holidays stressing you out? Take the stress survey:

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