THE BLOG

Four Ways to Have Happier Holidays

12/09/2013 01:37 pm ET | Updated Feb 08, 2014

What is it about this time of year that tends to make people crazy?

Instead of celebrating the joys of the season, many of us have turned December into the perfect storm of family conflict, financial stress and shattered expectations.

So if you know this possibility exists -- that you might wind up more melancholy than merry, here are some simple ways to stave off the red-and-green blues.

The Subject Is Now... You!
It doesn't matter who we become in life, the people who knew us "back when" will always think of us that way. For some that's a huge boon, but for most, during extended holiday visits we just wish our families would see us the way the rest of the world does. If you feel that way, let me help adjust your expectations. THEY NEVER WILL! Understand and accept that, and you will have a much better time visiting with them.

But how do you maintain your sanity when your aunt keeps reminding you that the boy you broke up with in high school is now the CEO of the hottest new tech company and his wife looks just like you? Preparation. Know the enemy and be ready.

When some kinfolk are hell-bent on challenging your enjoyment of this blissful season by bringing up some irrelevant part of your past, quickly change the subject. To them. This is what they'd rather be talking about anyway.

Before leaving home, make a list of who will be there, and memorize three topics that you can divert each one with, if the need arises. It looks something like this:

Family member: "Gosh, why aren't you writing anymore? I hate to think of you having that awful office job when you used to be so talented."
You: "Oh, thanks Aunt Pitty-Pat, but I love my new job. Hey, I heard the storms last month really damaged the barn. What are you guys going to do about that?"

Ta-da! You are now no longer talking about your erstwhile writing career. No need to use the phrase, "Let's change the subject." Just change it. To something the other person has a lot to talk about. Themselves.

No one will notice and you will get through the entire visit unscathed.

Seasonal Shields Up!
In the event you are unable to change the subject in a timely manner, and are forced to hear unwelcome feedback on the state of your job or love life or waistline, the best way to get through it is to erect an imaginary shield between yourself and the speaker.

Since it's winter, imagine a wall of ice between your cousin's fourth husband and you, as he derides your choice of investment vehicles for your retirement. (Hey, I'm with you. Chinchillas will pay off someday.) He will have no idea the barrier is there, but his words will slam against it and slide down, unable to penetrate your cheery mood.

You don't have to reserve your shields just for attacks against you, either. Any behavior that could potentially cause your lack-of-merry can be easily vanquished with the fabrication of a simple, see-through wall. Is some bitter old aunt complaining about your brother's kids, who you adore? Did your dad's wife once again put oysters in the stuffing, knowing that makes it inedible for you? Did a careless, unsupervised child just step on the gingerbread house that you spent hours making from scratch? No problem -- say to yourself, "Seasonal shields UP!" and carry on, in festive bliss.

They're Not Your Kids, So Walk Away -- Happy
Speaking of careless, unsupervised tykes, are your holidays challenged by the presence of other people's children, who are clearly not being raised the way you did/would/intend to raise your own kids? Guess what? Nobody cares. If a child's behavior is getting on your last nerve, and it's not your child, chances are someone needs help in the kitchen. Go do that.

My cousin, Elizabeth, is the best mother I have ever seen in action. And yet, when we were visiting over Thanksgiving, she kept apologizing that her 3- and 4-year old sons seemed to be screaming and fighting with each other "all the time." We didn't care. That's what little boys do. (And in reality, it was not more than a couple of minutes every few hours.) She passed so much judgment on herself that it broke my heart thinking anyone else might be doing the same. Kids are kids. And parents are exhausted. And you don't need to make it worse. That won't make anyone happy.

Here's the thing about parenting -- nobody knows nothing. I know a young woman who was an absolute monster as a child, totally unbearable to be around and spoiled beyond description, and now she's in grad school studying microlending in developing countries. On the other hand, I have a friend who was a wonderful mother, the kind who set up play dates and kissed boo-boos and stayed involved on every level. This year, for Christmas, she will be visiting her son in jail (the sad result of an addiction he couldn't control). You have no way of knowing how some little terror might turn out, so if it's not your little terror, simply say, "Bless his heart," and walk away.

Don't let someone else's kid ruin your holiday celebration, and conversely, don't ruin theirs. Just smile and be grateful that when you go home, they aren't going with you.

It Really Is the Thought That Counts
The best way to have a happy holiday is if everyone around you is happy. This is not your responsibility, by any stretch, but if you want to contribute to the cause, all it takes is a little effort.

Nothing makes me happier than seeing someone unwrap a box from me, watching their reaction and thinking, "Nailed it!" I make a concerted effort to ensure that whatever I give is exactly right, because it is the thought that counts and you know what? Good thoughts result in good gifts.

I make notes throughout the year, and the tiniest mention of a desire can result in the perfect present. Six years ago, my husband and I were watching a movie and he made a comment about loving the watch the actor was wearing. I tracked it down, added it to a list I keep of these things, and if the day ever arrives where I might be able to buy an $8,000 watch, that will be in his stocking. I'm getting happy just thinking about it now.

Are you stymied as to how to find that perfect little something for someone? Take advantage of the awesome reality that is social media. Ten minutes of cruising through a Facebook profile or Tumblr account and you should have more ideas than you could have imagined (and don't get me started on the bounty that is Pinterest!).

People will find ways to reveal to you what they really want, you just have to pay attention. Close attention. No shortcuts. And if you're sad because it feels like no one ever gets the right thing for you, try to transfer your joy to the feeling you get from making them happy, even if it's not reciprocated this time. Rock that creativity! Because it's the only part of this that's within your control, and besides, getting it right over and over will make everyone else want to do the same eventually. Put in the thought and you will experience the greatest joys this season has to offer.

The most important thing to remember is that this time of year really is about celebrating. Celebrating family, celebrating love, and celebrating that every day is a gift -- that's why it's called the present.

Enjoy the rest of December, and have an awesome 2014!

For a guidebook in achieving lasting, permanent happiness, check out "Happiness as a Second Language," a Happiness #1 Top Seller on Amazon. Makes a great gift -- on sale on Read Tuesday (December 10th) for just $1.99.

For more by Valerie Alexander on Huffington Post, click here.

For more on happiness, click here.

YOU MAY LIKE