12/11/2012 12:21 am ET Updated Feb 09, 2013

Presents or Presence? How to Have the Best Holiday Season Ever

Richard is upset. He's got a list of things he has to do to make Christmas happen this year. There are cards to write, presents to buy, a tree to decorate. He wants to throw a party. But there's no time. On top of it, his money situation isn't what it was last year. He wonders how he's going to afford it all.

Does this sound familiar? Or at least similar to your own story this year? Christmas, Hanukkah, or Kwanzaa: times of the year that are supposed to bring joy to the heart. Instead they come with a to-do list and a sense of dread.

"How am I going to make it through the holidays?" It's a common cry. But wait. What if it doesn't have to be like this at all? What if you could have the holiday season be a time of ease, satisfaction, and fun? Does this sound too good to be true? Well, read on!

Let's look at a shift in your point of view about the holidays and just what it will take to have a first-rate experience. After all, no one wants to have: "I survived the holidays!" emblazoned across his or her forehead. Instead, we will consider some simple practices that people have used to make the holidays a time to cherish.

1. Vision. You already know that people who are successful in life -- like many creative CEOs -- always begin with a vision for the business or a project. So, start with your vision for your "Holiday Project." For example, looking back on Jan. 2, 2013, what do you want to have experienced?

According to Dunn and Norton, authors of a forthcoming book on happiness, Happy Money: The Science of Spending, new data from a decade of research says your life satisfaction is substantially increased when you do two things with your money: spend it on experiences for yourself or give it away.

When you look at memories of your holiday experiences, you might find that they usually involved times when you did things with people you knew or loved. Below are some examples that I've collected over the years, talking with people about what made them happy during the holidays:

  • Sitting around with a fire in the fireplace, playing board games.
  • The walks we took in the snowy forest, followed by hot mulled cider.
  • The potluck where we ate pie and watched an old Christmas movie.
  • Having my grandchild help me make pumpkin bread.
  • Showing my young son how to create a great miniature Christmas scene.
  • Going snowboarding with my wife.
  • Watching the lights go up on the Christmas tree at our mall.
  • Serving Christmas dinner at our homeless shelter.
  • You can fill in the blank here.

The point is to project yourself forward, and then look back on the holidays. It's Jan. 2. When you think about the holiday just past, what will have made you happy?

2. Enrollment. People who are successful in their projects usually know how to enroll others in their vision. Make a statement about your vision for the holidays and invite your friends, family, or colleagues to share their own. Many won't know what you mean at first, but this is the perfect time to talk about what's most important or special.

For example, think about talking with your family. Let each person look at what they will want to remember. Have them write it down and read it out loud. It could sound something like this:

"This year I want to remember the times we spent together relaxing and talking. I want to cook a good dinner or two, see some movies, and play games with people I love. I want to find small, special ways to let people know how much they mean to me."

You may be surprised at how simple people's vision actually is. And you will see how much the holidays are about connection and contribution. I remember one man whose 14-year-old son told him how happy he felt after a Christmas Day when everyone just hung out together, opening a few presents and watching the family favorite movie: Elf. The son said, "We just had fun. We weren't rushing around with a plan."

So, you might ask yourself the following: Regarding the holidays, is it about the presents, or is it about being present with people I love?

3. Keep things simple. Successful people know that in order to be effective they need to focus on what's important and keep things simple. Whether it's developing a new IT process, designing innovative ways to deliver services across national boundaries, or finding a better way to make a chocolate cake, the simpler the better. Complicated processes often mask inefficiency. And the holidays are a time to be efficient so that you can be relaxed. In this case, consider the following suggestions for gifts. Keep in mind that you want to give people something they will remember fondly after Jan. 2.

One choice gift instead of a lot of "lesser" gifts

This age-old ritual works well even now. It's aimed at larger groups of friends or at families. Everyone makes a list of what they really want for the holidays. Don't be surprised if what they'd actually appreciate receiving often costs less then you had planned to spend. Agree that you will each buy one present out of the top three listed. A variation on this is to pair up with a "Secret Santa" who picks a friend/family member out of a hat and buys for that person only. It's fun to try and figure out who bought the present for you. Combine this with a potluck and you have a great event!

A coupon book

My friend Lynn showed me a homemade coupon book her partner Mary gave her last Christmas. In it there were coupons redeemable for such items as a 30-minute massage, the dessert of Lynn's dreams, an evening at a movie of Lynn's choice, a trip to the art museum, one day of "doing whatever I want," and a drive in the countryside.

You can bet that Lynn made the most of this coupon book throughout the year. It was truly a gift that kept on giving. Use your imagination with the people you love. They'll appreciate your thoughtfulness and remember your gift a lot longer.

The gift that keeps on giving -- literally!

There are a number of online programs that provide micro loans to folks in Third World countries who want to make a better life for themselves and their community. In some cases, a $25 loan makes a huge difference in getting someone started in a business. The payback rate for the loans is about 98.99%. Go to and see for yourself. You can donate money in the name of the person receiving your gift. Here's where the fun begins: They go online and can actually designate where the money should go. They get a picture and story of the person who is receiving the money and occasionally an update as to how they are doing. Go to Google for examples of programs like this.

The give-away season

Did you know that health and well-being are directly related to your ability to be generous? Research in psychology shows time and again that making a contribution does almost more for the giver than the receiver. In a Nov. 29, 2012 blog, Dr. Lisa Firestone refers to a research study at the University of Michigan that indicates the positive effects of generosity include improving one's mental and physical health and promoting longevity. Dunn and Norton cite their own study, in which people who were given $20 to spend on others reported being happier than those given the same amount to spend on themselves.

Your gift to others could be in the form of money, time, food, clothes, cheer, or comfort. This year more than ever before, try the time-tested path to peace and a sense of prosperity: Find some place or program to contribute to, and do it! There are so many programs in your community that would cherish your help. Involve your friends, family members, and even your grandparents.

4. Use acknowledgement wherever possible. You know in your heart it's true: People love to be acknowledged. Acknowledgment is when you tell someone what they mean to you. You might point out something nice they did for you this year. You might underscore a particular quality or gift that they bring to your relationship. And remember to say the sweetest words someone can hear when you are acknowledging them: their name spoken on your lips!

Now, acknowledgment is different from a compliment. With a compliment you are talking about their style of dress, or the way they fixed a meal. These are important, please don't get me wrong. But acknowledgement is something else.

An acknowledgment points to what you see is special about a person. It is recognition of the traits or qualities that he or she possesses. For example, do you appreciate how thoughtful this person is? Is this person trustworthy, supportive or compassionate? Can you count on him or her to fulfill promises? Does his or her presence brighten your day? You see, there's that word presence again.

In the last analysis, it is all about presence, isn't it? Whether we are with family and friends, or are visiting people in community programs who need to experience a connection with others, holidays are about celebrating the human spirit. And when we design our "Holiday Project" around that knowledge, we will see that our presence is the present!

There is a Holiday Project program that visits people in convalescent homes and hospitals over the holidays. Go to to find a group near you.

For more on holiday stress, click here.

For more by Maria Nemeth, Ph.D., click here.