How to have a happier festive season

It's meant to be the season to be jolly. But for many of us, it's the season for feeling stressed, over-socialised and exhausted. We talked to behavioural scientist, Renee Jaine about how we can feel relaxed, rejuvenated and ready for 2023. 

Deck the halls but don’t clear the decks

Us humans are prone to think in binaries – good vs bad, us vs them, and this year vs next year. We also love a fresh start, and a new year feels like a great opportunity to do things differently and better. However, taken together, these thought patterns can make us feel like everything needs to be finished by Christmas.

Yet there is a third way here. By all means, focus on getting through all the rats-and-mice tasks that can be completed before the public holidays. In time management speak you’ll be ‘closing the open loops’ in your mind, and that’s really helpful for switching off.

But beyond that, there may be some substantial tasks that you cannot feasibly complete before Christmas. As Oliver Burkeman says in ‘4000 weeks: Time management for mortals’, “We’ve been granted the mental capacities to make almost infinitely ambitious plans, yet practically no time at all to put them into action.”

If your grand plans are exceeding your timelines, working harder and faster isn’t a sustainable strategy. Rather, set some clear expectations with clients or colleagues, and write yourself a detailed memo about what you need to do when you get back. This should help you to finish the year in one piece, and start the new year where you left off.

Silent night or socialising night?

It’s not just a busy time workwise, but also a season full of social events and pre-Christmas catch-ups. And in general, relationships are a critical part of well-being, with social isolation as bad for you as smoking a pack of cigarettes a day. But just because the social connection is good for you, doesn’t mean more is always better (kind of like self-esteem).

If you’re feeling heavily burdened by your social calendar, it’s time to say no to a few events or to postpone gatherings until the new year.

What if they’re work events? Dr Barbara Plester from the University of Auckland’s business school has some guidance. Barbara studies humour and fun in the workplace, and she distinguishes between organic fun which arises spontaneously between people, task fun in which people love the actual work, and managed fun which is more structured and usually led by managers or the social committee. Work events are ‘managed fun’, which is typically the hardest type of fun to get right.

Organisations can increase the odds that people want to come along, by getting various groups or individuals to organise events that will cater to different needs. But Barbara also recommends that organisations institute an ‘opt-out clause’ to enable people to pass on social occasions without judgement. Because it’s preferable to attend a few events in a good headspace, than to attend everything and burn out.

Joy to the world – how to downshift and do leisure well

Not everyone will be enjoying a shutdown period this year – and if you are working through it, then thank you for your dedication. If you are going to have a break, you may still find it difficult to transition from a fast-paced work mode into a more relaxed holiday mode. What you need is a ‘downshifting’ ritual, to borrow a phrase from Dan Buettner and ‘The Blue Zones of Happiness'. As he explains:

“Even people in the Blue Zones experience stress. . . What the world’s longest-lived people have that we don’t are routines to shed that stress. Okinawans take a few moments each day to remember their ancestors, Adventists pray, Ikarians take a nap and Sardinians do happy hour.”

It could be useful to identify your downshifting ritual from work mode to holiday mode, ahead of time. You may like to design your first few days quite intentionally – perhaps racing through your Christmas shopping while you’re still in ‘go go go’ mode, and then having an intentional downshifting day, with some sport to get the cortisol out, a meal with friends, time in nature, whatever fits the bill. You may also like to think about the habits that you’ll need to break, in order to downshift. So when you instinctively open your phone to check your emails and get an associated dopamine hit, what could you do instead? Find a great book, pick up the guitar, call a friend?

The ironic thing about leisure is that it often doesn’t make us that happy. As Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi, author of ‘Flow’ puts it:

“Jobs are actually easier to enjoy than free time because like flow activities they have built-in goals, feedback, rules, and challenges, all of which encourage one to become involved in one’s work, to concentrate and lose oneself in it. Free time, on the other hand, is unstructured, and requires much greater effort to be shaped into something that can be enjoyed.”

This doesn’t mean we should work all the time, but rather, figure out how to redesign leisure so that it’s genuinely restorative. You can engage in more active pursuits that will more readily get you into the flow. Or, as science writer Catherine Price prescribes, you could think about the moments in your life that you’d describe as ‘SO fun’, then get analytical about what made them so. For me, it’s variable feedback – which includes fishing and the odd casino trip. Build those ‘fun factors’ into your leisure time and you’ll be more likely to have joy in your part of the world.

Renee is the founder of Thrive Lab. Connect with Renee