Don’t Isolate Yourself This Holiday Season

The pandemic makes it dangerous to gather in person, but for the sake of your well-being, find connection however you can.

A sad man dangles from a Christmas ornament.
Jan Buchczik

How to Build a Lifeis a biweekly column by Arthur Brooks, tackling questions of meaning and happiness.

The polls before the 2020 election were an inaccurate predictor of the vote—some wildly so. Many polls badly underestimated the number of people intending to vote for Donald Trump. One explanation is the “shy voter” hypothesis: People were reluctant to tell pollsters their true voting intentions, because they feared opprobrium for their support of Trump.

This is not a new phenomenon, and, indeed, academic research shows that “shy voters” can render polls highly inaccurate. And this may well be the case for “shy holiday-haters,” few of whom admit they dislike the holiday season but—I believe—are lurking all around us.

Amid the cheer of this time of year, there are always rumblings of holiday discontent: the crass materialism; the Christmas decorations in stores going up right after Halloween; the abomination known as “pumpkin spice.” And yet, few Americans are willing to own up to these views in polls. In 2013, the Pew Research Center reported that “roughly one-in-twenty Americans (4%) say there is nothing about Christmas or the holidays they look forward to, except perhaps the end of the season.” And as respondents told Gallup a few years later, Thanksgiving and Christmas are two of the three “happiest days” of the year (the third being Independence Day).

Indirect questions yield a somewhat different story, however. A 2015 Healthline survey revealed that more than 18 percent of people say they are very stressed during the holidays, and another nearly 44 percent say they are somewhat stressed. Similarly, a 2006 survey by Greenberg Quinlan Rosner Research, a polling firm, found that during the holidays, 61 percent of respondents reported feeling stress, 36 percent felt sad, and 26 percent felt lonely. For many, “holiday cheer” is conjured from a bottle: The American Addiction Center surveyed 1,000 Americans about their drinking consumption during the holidays and found that roughly 27 percent of men and 17 percent of women drank enough “to have difficulty recalling their celebration.”

This is why I believe there may be a good amount of hidden unhappiness around the holidays, even in the merriest of years. And this is a year that will be especially trying. For some, it is a season marked by continued fear and loss from the pandemic. For many families (like mine), there are painful separations that cap months and months of already being apart.

More than usual, people can use some holiday-happiness assistance.

I’m no shy voter, so let me confess right here that while I don’t hate the holidays, I’ve never been a major fan, either. My father died on Thanksgiving Day. While that event occurred decades ago, it still marks the day for me. And Christmas? I am content to celebrate it as a religious observance, but the secular aspects feel socially coercive and commercially predatory. My feelings are complicated, to say the least.

The author as a young boy, sad at Christmas (Courtesy of Arthur Brooks)

Beyond individual tastes or personal experiences, social science has provided some explanations for why the holidays might be less than blissful. A lot of it comes down to social comparison, which is one of life’s most predictable joy killers.

In 2011, a team of psychologists writing in the journal Personality and Social Psychology Bulletin found that humans are remarkably bad at assessing the true emotions of others, including people close to them. In experiments, they found that people tend to systematically underestimate the negative emotions others feel, and overestimate positive emotions. They compare their own happiness levels to those they (often incorrectly) perceive in others, and this causes, in the authors’ words, “greater loneliness and rumination and lower life satisfaction.”

Social media makes this error easier than ever to commit, especially around the holidays. Spend time perusing a friend or relative’s Facebook page around Christmas, and you will see pictures of people having a wonderful time. But, of course, these messages and images are carefully curated. No one posts a photo of a blowout political argument at dinner, or mentions the crippling anxiety they get from the credit-card debt they racked up buying presents. We know this intellectually, but as the scholars show, we somehow can’t factor this into our evaluations of others’ true happiness.

At this point, invidious social comparison kicks in, stamping out some of the holiday joy you did have. You might then be stimulated to post pictures of your own fake happiness to Facebook, thus passing on the emotional cycle like a regifted holiday fruitcake.

If you can relate to this (or if you’re a shy voter and you have a “friend” who dislikes the holidays), there are steps you can take to make the season at least a little merrier.

First, focus on the true meaning of the holidays, not the commercial version of them. Writing in the Journal of Happiness Studies in 2002, two scholars randomly surveyed 117 Americans ranging in age from 18 to 80 about their emotional experience during the holiday season. The study found clear evidence that what brought happiness during that time was family and religion. In contrast, the secular, materialistic aspects of the holidays—spending money and receiving gifts—contributed little to joy, or “were associated with less happiness and more stress and unpleasant affect.”

If you are traditionally religious and celebrate Christmas or Hanukkah, then celebrate Christmas or Hanukkah. Don’t strip the holidays of their origins and meaning. Of course, few people do this on purpose; it happens more by displacement. In the commercial fever starting on Black Friday, our energy can become totally consumed by shopping. The Christmas season also comes with a soundtrack few of us would ever countenance were it not for secular tradition. (Could you stand Burl Ives singing “Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer” in June?) Consumerism and spectacle can crowd out the holidays’ original significance.

Second, even if you are not religious, the research also shows that holiday happiness comes from being with people. This is obviously harder to accomplish this year than it ordinarily would be, because of the pandemic. In many cases, it is dangerous or simply impossible to unite with friends and family, so being together this year requires some ingenuity. If you can’t have guests (or be a guest), savor meals and activities with those who are in your household. Use technology creatively; we will almost certainly wind up having Christmas dinner “with” family members on FaceTime.

But don’t self-isolate. Doing so is one of the classic maladaptive coping strategies people employ when they are unhappy. For most, that’s self-destructive and a missed opportunity for something that will truly bring happiness.

Third, whether you are religious or not, create rituals that are meaningful to you, not the things you think you are supposed to do. In 2016, colleagues of mine from the Harvard Business School surveyed hundreds of people after Christmas, New Year’s Eve, and Easter. They found that holiday enjoyment was increased—and ill-feelings were buffered—by rituals that people created and followed each year. The exact form of the rituals mattered less than that they existed.

Case in point: Ten years ago, when my children were little, my wife needed to travel over the Thanksgiving break to see her parents in Barcelona, leaving me alone with the kids to celebrate the holiday. We decided together to try something nontraditional: We found the diviest restaurant we could that was open on Thanksgiving and served turkey dinners, and after we ate we went to the movies (where we were alone in the theater). I felt like I was wearing a sign that said dad doesn’t know how to cook. But my kids loved it so much that we repeated exactly that routine for the next eight years. They still talk with fondness about our unique Thanksgiving tradition.

Finally, if you are someone who dislikes the commercialism of the holidays, a soft rebellion might be in order. Put a moratorium on purchases between Thanksgiving and the New Year. You might seem a little eccentric to your relatives, but they will surely like a version of you that is happy and not scowling through December. You might even surround yourself with like-minded people dedicated to celebrating the holidays without the stress of crowds and shopping, by agreeing to enjoy each other without presents.

If you are someone who delights in the holidays just as they are, congratulations—I am happy for you. But if you have negative or mixed feelings about the holidays—especially this year—undue suffering is not inevitable. Remember that you don’t have to reconfigure yourself to fit the occasion. Rather, you need to reconfigure the occasion to fit yourself. Follow the steps above to make holidays that are meaningful, fun, and filled with happiness.

My family sends you and yours warm wishes and love. Happy Holidays.