The holidays, it can seem, are all about time and money: Spending too much money. Never having enough time. All of which can cause so much stress and unhappiness that the American Psychological Association has actually set up an online Holiday Stress Resource Center to help us cope.
It doesn’t take a survey to know that most people want to be happy and not stressed out at the holidays. We look forward to heightened feelings of happiness, love, high spirits and connectedness. But we so often get caught up in all the extra work it takes to create all that good cheer that Christmas and the winter holidays instead can come to feel like a dreaded, gigantic to-do list. Tree? Check. Lights that work? Run to the store. Cards? Ordered, stamped, and mailed. Gifts?
I knew I was in need of a serious holiday attitude adjustment when my neighbor came over with a freshly baked plate of cookies. My first instinct, I’m ashamed to say, rather than gratitude for this selfless and delicious gift, was annoyance. I’d have to reciprocate, dang it. Like Santa, it was just one more thing to put on the list.
So I turned to a couple of happiness experts, Elizabeth Dunn, a psychology professor at the University of British Columbia, and Ashley Whillans, an assistant professor at the Harvard Business School, who specialize in studying the choices we make around time, money, and drudge work.
Here are their five top strategies that social science research suggests will help us all have a happier holiday:
1. Be in the moment: We live in an era of intense time pressure, when most people feel there simply isn’t enough time in their lives and stress is at an all-time high. That can make us feel out of control and always behind, and unhappy, especially at the holidays. So give some thought to how you really want to spend your time.
Dunn makes it a practice to think about what will make the time she spends over the holidays most enjoyable and enable her to be fully present. Not surprisingly, she said, happiness research shows that when we can be present in the moment, we enjoy it more. “If you’re doing one thing and thinking about another, that undermines your ability to reap enjoyment in whatever you’re doing,” Dunn said.
So she made some decisions that, to an economist, may seem irrational, but make perfect sense to a happiness researcher. She has a flexible schedule, so she was thinking she and her husband and son could visit her family in San Francisco in early December, when the flights are dramatically cheaper. But while that makes more economic sense, she knew she’d also be juggling and worrying about work, like writing final exams and grading papers, which would be distracting and make the time feel more stressful. “So we’ll spend a little more money going over Christmas, but that will help me get more enjoyment out of the experience.”
2. Prioritize quality time: Guided by the research that, when it comes to happiness, time matters more than money, when Whillans took her new job at Harvard, she and her husband decided to pay more in rent so she could walk to work, rather than pay less and have a big, time-sucking commute. They consciously chose to spend more money to buy themselves more time.
Whillans takes the same approach to the holidays. She and her husband have a no-gift rule. They instead try to spend time with each other over the holidays. “We give ourselves the gift of uninterrupted time. We focus on prioritizing time with each other, rather than what we’re going to give to each other.”
And as for using your time for meaningful things rather than cooking, cleaning, and all the exhausting work it can take to create holiday magic? If you can afford it, buy your way out of the drudge work you dread, they said. If you can’t, share the load, or do less of it.
Dunn and Whillans recently published research that found that people are happier when they use money to buy their way out of drudgery. In one of their studies, they gave people $40 and had one group buy stuff, and another group buy their way out of unenjoyable chores with cleaning, lawn or errand services, or take-out food. That opened up the possibility of spending time differently.
People reported feeling more in control of their time, Whillans said, and less overwhelmed by their daily lives. So taking a page from their own research, Dunn, who doesn’t love wrapping presents, prioritizes shopping at stores that do the wrapping for her, even if it costs a bit more.
3. Buy experiences, not things: Other happiness researchers have found that spending money on positive experiences, rather than stuff, makes us happier and increases our sense of well-being. And, Whillans said, both the anticipation of the experience and savoring the memory of it afterward can extend those feelings of happiness.
In their study, people who bought their way out of drudge work and had more time, tended to choose to spend it with family and friends and socialized more and enjoyed their time more. That certainly reinforces research that found people who focus on family and spirituality at the holidays are happier than those who are wrapped up in spending money and getting gifts.
4. Maximize the impact of your generosity: “We see in our research that giving promotes happiness to the extent that you can really see, understand, or envision the benefit it will have to the people you’re giving to,” Dunn said. “If I get my dad some random cuff links, I know it’s not going to change anything about his life. The same thing applies to a lot of charitable giving. We just don't get much of an emotional return on it if it’s too diffuse, or if we don’t know how would make a difference.”
So this year, after running around all day in the rain buying Christmas presents and feeling mildly irritated with the world, Dunn came home and donated to an organization that helps pay for operations to repair clubfoot. “I know, if I give this gift, a kid on the other side of the world will have a totally different life,” she said. “The more you can understand the generosity of your gift, the better you’re going to feel. It was a nice way to end the day.”
5. Less is more: Sometimes, what makes us unhappy, especially around the holidays, is simply the too muchness of it all: too much food and drink, too much to do, too much to buy, too many holiday parties at the same time. All of that can add to an intensified sense of time pressure, stress, and unhappiness. So think about doing less. “People are bad at making goals around subtraction,” Whillans said. “We fail to think about removing experiences from our lives as a path to greater happiness.”
Prioritize the kinds of experiences you really want to have. Think about what’s necessary, and drop the expectation that everything must be perfect. “Figure out what to not do,” Dunn said. Go to one fewer party or event. Say no. Focus less on consumption and more on positive experiences, or helping others, Whillans said. “Those are things we know are better for happiness.”
And maybe find time to do a little something nice for your cookie-baking neighbor, not because it’s just one more thing to cross off your to-do list, or because the research shows doing something nice for someone else really does make us happy, but because this is what a truly joyful holiday season is all about.