12/24/2014 08:34 am ET Updated Feb 22, 2015

Holiday Blues: Spirituality to the Rescue

It is a commonplace of spiritual teachings -- those within as well as those outside of traditional religions -- that the mind plays a powerful role in creating happiness or misery. While this perspective might not help those suffering from chronic starvation or machine gun bullets, it could have a shot helping explain why so many people feel so lousy during the holidays. If we define spirituality as the simple (not easy) belief that living with self-awareness, acceptance, gratitude, compassion, and love make us personally happier and a lot more fun to be around, let's see if a spiritual shift of our mental style can help us out.

To begin: mindful meditation, introspection, free associating at a keyboard, or talking with a good friend could help us recognize the negative effects of the consumerism and psychological manipulation that's assaulting us. We're supposed to buy a lot of stuff and we're supposed to be happy (and what's wrong with us if we're not?). Yet in all honesty we know that things bring only the most fleeting of pleasures, and binge buying for ourselves or others often leaves us feeling deprived, anxious, envious and in debt. As well happiness is rarely, if ever, preordered or programmed. Joy and delight are spontaneous responses to something magical in the moment, not states of mind we can schedule into our iPhone organizers.

More seriously: the holidays are often a time when we spend time with those closest to us -- immersed in the love, hate, frustration, expectation, delight, irritation and disappointment that characterize so much of modern family and friendship. Just as our credit cards max out far sooner than we'd like, too often circles of family, friends and general nurturance don't measure up to what we want. Combine that with economic distress and the endless desire for 'more' that afflicts even the well-off, and too many of us are just plain miserable about now.

While consumerism and programmed holiday cheer can easily be dispensed with, there is nothing wrong with our need to have close families and feel safe and supported by our friends. Will anything help us get past the feeling that none of this is working?

It might help to begin with ourselves, for some modicum of self-satisfaction is probably necessary before we can enjoy the less than perfect people around us. I believe that almost all of us -- no matter what else is going one -- can find space for simple moments of gratitude (a far more reliable source of mental health than any psychiatric medication). For instance, we are here, and short of living under ISIS or in the last stages of cancer or Alzheimer's, a universe in which we exist is better than one in which we don't. Despite everything, we can be glad we are alive.

There's more. Hate being barraged by treacly holiday music? Feel grateful that you can hear at all. Wish you were richer, skinnier, more famous, had a better place to live? Appreciate that you still have a mind that can think at all -- even if what you're thinking isn't cheerful. Wish things were different? Of course you do -- so do we all. But that universe -- the one where all your (good) dreams come true, is about as real as the one in which Santa brings all the nice kids toys. It never existed. This is the only universe you've got.

From a simple gratitude for our lives and some of the most simple and simply precious things within them, we might move more easily to compassion for Uncle Joe whose political opinions we find despicable; Aunt Mary who gets sloshed at all social gatherings; Dad who never seems to approve of anything we do; or the long past college daughter who still can't find a job. Could we try another way to look at these folks? At least Joe cares enough about the world to think about it in political terms; Mary may get embarrassingly tipsy, but what sorrow or insecurity does she carry that make it a real effort for her to get to family parties at all? Yet she comes. What pain about his own life and doubts about his manhood or fathering make Dad so hyper critical? And the failure-to-launch daughter might be using all her available psychological reserves just to get out of bed in the morning.

Compassion for others is partly rooted in inner and honest self-assessment. Perhaps you have never offered loud-mouthed political opinions, had too much to drink, been overly critical, or failed to fulfill your potential. But I sure have. Knowing such things about myself makes me a tad more compassionate and accepting of the people in my life who disappoint or irritate me.

If we reflect with compassion on the sorrows and fears that motivate others, we might have more space to love them: to remember the kindnesses Mary did for us when we were kids, the money that Dad had to work hard for that gave us vacations or luxuries we enjoyed; the way Joe, as out of it politically as he might be, always spends time teaching the young kids card tricks; how your perennially unemployed daughter was caring to her aged grandmother. We might try to love them -- warts and all -- because hard as they sometimes are be to come by loving feelings are among the deepest and most reliable sources of our own fulfillment.

And that's the key: as much as we are attracted to envy, disappointment, and negative judgments, it's gratitude, compassion, and love that offer lasting contentment. So perhaps this one holiday season, whatever we get for other people, we could give ourselves the gift of a little spiritual serenity.

Roger S. Gottlieb is professor of philosophy at Worcester Polytechnic Institute. His newest book is Political and Spiritual: Essays on Religion, Environment, Disability, and Justice. [Read an excerpt here.] He has previously published the Nautilus Book Award winners Spirituality: What it is and Why it Matters and the short story collection Engaging Voices: Tales of Morality and Meaning in an Age of Global Warming.