Holiday Happiness Checklist: Try These Tips to Feel Happier This Holiday Season

Be honest: are you excited about this year’s holiday season—or dreading it? Maybe a little of both?

If you find that the holidays increase your stress levels, you’re definitely not alone. In a 2021 poll conducted by the American Psychiatric Association, Americans reported a long list of stressors that crop up around this time of year. These included concerns about finding or affording gifts, overeating or overdrinking, working too-long hours, confronting social and family dynamics, and contracting or spreading COVID-19 at get-togethers.

While the holidays are typically a time of festive cheer, giving thanks, and bonding with the people we love, they may also bring mental health challenges. Stress, seasonal affective disorder, and grief may strike at this time of year, while nature’s changes (like less sunlight and colder temperatures) can take a toll on mood.

The good news is, that you can feel happier this season through simple lifestyle choices. Read on for some of my top coping strategies to not only survive the holiday season with your sanity intact but also help you feel rejuvenated and ready to ring in the New Year.

7 Tips to Help You Feel Happier Over the Holidays

How to Feel Happier this Holiday Season | BrainMD

 1. Keep Your Diet on Track

You don’t have to totally derail your normal diet over the holiday season. A lot of those things we innocently call “indulgences” and “comfort foods” are harmful to the body. They’re ultra-processed, full of sugar, bogged down by dairy, or loaded with unhealthy fats. They’re also addictive and create inflammation in the body. In an already stressful and depression-prone season, all of these negative effects can sink our mood even lower.

Instead, keep in mind the basic rules of holiday eating: choose one food outside your normal plan that you will sample (and don’t choose your biggest trigger food). Stop at three small bites, which will give you the taste without the mindless binging. Bring healthy appetizers, snacks, or desserts to a holiday meal or party outside your home. Remember that after just one day of binge eating, it can take days for your body to stabilize again. But if you do get off track, don’t beat yourself up endlessly—just get right back to healthy eating.

 2. Lend a Helping Hand

In this season of gratitude, spread some goodwill outside your immediate circle. I love volunteering to help others because it’s something the whole family can do together. It starts creating positive giving-back habits in our kids and reinforces for us adults just how fortunate we are. Luckily, this season offers so many ways to help: organizing a food drive, donating used or new clothes and toys, or handing out holiday meals at a local shelter, to name just a few.

Feeling despair in the face of constant negative news feeds? Helping out is a great way to create change, whether you’re working locally or globally. I always advise focusing on things you can control (rather than fixating on things you can’t)—and making a contribution is one of those things. Plus, giving back has been shown in numerous studies to offer well-being benefits, from improving mood and physical health to reducing loneliness and the risk of depression. With both givers and receivers reaping the rewards, everyone’s a winner.

3. Schedule Downtime 

As much as the holidays are associated with overeating, they now seem to be associated with stressing and overscheduling ourselves to the max. Between shopping lists, holiday parties, overcrowded stores, and family gatherings, it’s easy to feel overwhelmed. That’s why it’s more important at this time of year to set aside some “me time.” Indulge regularly in self-care practices, like reading a good book, taking a hot bath, relaxing with a cup of tea, journaling, meditating, deep breathing, enjoying a favorite hobby—whatever relaxes you.

If you need to, schedule this downtime just as you would anything else in your calendar, and make sure you adhere to it. Everyone needs to recharge amid the busyness of the season. Studies have shown that taking regular breaks boosts productivity and focus, so there’s never a need to feel guilty about taking time for yourself.

 4. Set Limits and Expectations

You don’t have to overcommit yourself at this time of year or say yes to every invite. In fact, you might want to practice saying, “Let me think about it” when anyone asks you to do anything this season. Take a pause and think it over. Do you have the time, energy, and/or resources? If you aren’t feeling a full yes, just say no. Or, when appropriate, ask for help to tackle your holiday to-dos—because you also don’t need to handle everything alone.

So many of us are afraid to say no or set boundaries with our friends, family, and co-workers. But this is exactly what helps create the happiest, healthiest relationships. For example, if you’re the one hosting the holiday gathering this year, you’re entitled to establish rules around behavior you won’t accept at the dinner table. When your boundaries are reasonable, loved ones should demonstrate respect and understanding for them. And you’ll feel better about having stood up for your own needs.

Also, set appropriate limits for your routines and budgeting. Maintain your exercise sessions and stick to your budget so you don’t add physical or financial stress on top of everything else. At the same time, ditch the drive for perfection that can accompany the holiday season. Nothing and no one is perfect, so embrace the unexpected when needed, go with the flow, and breathe through it.

 5. Don’t Skip Sleep

As someone who once struggled with sleep, I know firsthand the brain fog, irritability, and even poor food choices that can occur as a result. Without quality rest, you’ll feel like Scrooge all holiday season long, and no wonder—lack of sleep impacts brain health, and brain health is mental health. Sleep deprivation is associated with a greater risk for conditions like depression and anxiety. We all need the overnight repair of the body’s cells (including brain cells), when toxins accumulated throughout the day are cleared away.

Make sure you get 7 to 9 hours of sleep each night to prevent these negative effects. To encourage quality shut-eye, I practice the main tenets of good sleep hygiene: keeping a dark environment in my bedroom, sticking to a sleep schedule, avoiding electronics before bedtime, and enjoying relaxing pre-bedtime rituals, like a soothing drink or music. Supplements can help ensure a great night’s rest, too. Try melatonin, valerian root, magnesium, 5-HTP, GABA, or inositol.

 6. Avoid or Limit Alcohol

It’s unfortunate that alcohol is viewed by many as a holiday must-have because its effects on the body and mood are anything but festive. People think they need booze to “loosen up” or “have fun” at parties, but alcohol is actually a depressant, as well as a known carcinogen. It interferes with sleep and the formation of memories, while making it more likely that you’ll overeat unhealthy foods.

In fact, because it disrupts the prefrontal cortex, our brain’s decision-making “executive center,” we’re more likely to make all kinds of bad decisions. Then, the next day, the phenomenon known as hangxiety may strike—the hangover and anxiety double whammy. It’s best to avoid alcohol altogether this holiday season. If you do drink, hydrate with plenty of plain water before and after having one glass, and stick to a pre-determined limit that you’ve shared beforehand with an accountability buddy.

 7. Spread Joy (Not Stress) This Season

Even if everyone else around you is succumbing to the stress whirlwind of the holidays, you don’t need to follow suit. In fact, by following these tips, you will be gifting others with your mere presence—one that’s strong, healthy, calm, and full of energy. To help out even more, share these tips with your loved ones and watch the joy multiply.

Here’s to a healthy and happier holiday season for us all!

Tana Amen, BSN, RN