Betty W. Phillips, Ph.D., Psychology
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Holiday Travel: Happiness or Stress?



My philosophy is: why settle for less than happiness?  Joy and happiness, peace on earth and peace in your heart! We all want to find this wonderful place every day and especially during the holidays. As Eckhart Tolle tells us, we need to live in the now and make the present our place of refuge and comfort. (The Power of Now, New World Library, 2004) But even Tolle acknowledges that some planning is helpful so that we can enjoy our time in the now. In this increasingly complex and stressful world, we do need to prepare for both holiday stress and happiness.  I've written before about the positivity factor: we need to experience three positive life experiences to counterbalance every negative experience. But -- remember that the stress monster hates holidays! So here are some positive ideas for you to defeat the stress monster's nefarious plans to spoil your holiday.


Let's start with happiness. Your primary goal for yourself and your family during any holiday will be peace and joy, not just surviving travel and family conflicts. Toward this end, take a moment to develop a short personal happiness meditation to use for holiday planning and at other times in your life. Just arrange a picture in your mind of people or things you love, add a few words as a mantra and set it to uplifting or cheerful mind music. Take a deep breath and relax your body. Your mantra could be "love" or "peace" or whatever will help you recall your personal special meditation. This is especially important for holiday planning when past holidays have turned out to be disasters rather than celebrations. Bad memories of travel problems or family conflict can cause stress or even gut-wrenching distress. You will have your meditation to use as needed whenever you start to feel stress during the planning process or during travel or holiday events.


Now that you have your happiness meditation, make a plan for family fun and involve each person in planning his or her travel enjoyment kit. It's important to have your own enjoyment activities and not just expect entertainment to find you. Each person should get together a knapsack of things they will enjoy during the travel and holiday activities.  You'll probably have to help the children put together their own kits and not to overload with electronic gadgets. Books, card games and drawing materials hopefully have not gone out of style. 


Your travel kit should not include work activities!  If you absolutely have to connect with work during your holiday time, schedule a time and place for the absolute minimum number of work tasks and do not allow continuing interruptions. You will have time to catch up and get back to ordinary life during your reentry time.


If your holiday travel plan includes children, be sure to develop an incentive behavior plan with input from the children. Too often family travel finds children whining and complaining, squabbling or fighting among themselves or even with their parents.  Discuss with the children their own happiness plans and point out that fussing and fighting are not part of happiness. Develop a reasonable reward plan for cooperation. Rewards can be positive activities and should not be money or presents, especially during Christmas when presents proliferate.


Develop a travel adventure/disaster plan. Be sure to schedule for and allow extra time to deal with time pressures and delays.  Arrive at the airport with ample time to stand in line. Take along some snacks and activities from your enjoyment kit.  Check airline regulations ahead of time so that you can expedite your passage through security in the experienced traveler line. If you are driving, get your car on the road early and schedule short break periods every two hours or so.  Talk with your family about your adventure and express curiosity about different parts of the country or even differences in airports and customs.  Be delighted with any positive travel success and, as much as possible, avoid feelings of anger and frustration as you encounter travel problems.


Develop a family plan for dealing with relatives including loved and unloved extended family members.  As appropriate, discuss your plans with your spouse, partner or children.  Look forward to enjoying this family time but also make a plan to deal with difficulties and tensions. You might begin by bringing small thoughtful gifts or cards for your hosts. Enlist the children in this project, as they often enjoy drawing cards or making gifts for others. Once there, plan to pitch in and help with food or cleanup activities. Discuss this with your children ahead of time so that they will be prepared to arrive with a cooperative attitude. Do your part to help with the festivities but not so much that you will feel overburdened or resentful.  Plan some of your own activities including breaks from family functions, naps, walks, reading and so forth. If you are concerned about family closeness becoming oppressive, consider scheduling nights in a nearby hotel. 


Do you need a psychological boundary plan? There are times when family relationships can be expected to be very problematic, whether they are with relatives by family line or marriage. Many in-laws can be expected to be supportive and kind. But woe be unto you who has to deal with the proverbial problem relatives! You don't have to grin and bear it. Anticipated problems could include favoritism to some or negative behaviors such as criticism, guilt tripping, intrusive questioning or disrespecting privacy. The strategies mentioned above are helpful but not sufficient. If you've encountered these problems before you can develop a plan to protect yourself and other family members. You don't have to accept the validity of criticism. Just acknowledge the criticism with a repeated comment such as, "Oh I hear your point." Inside, of course, you can be reassuring yourself that the criticism is unfounded.  Your problem relatives may tire of hearing these words repeated after every criticism.  Furthermore, you don't have to answer every intrusive question.  It is your right to choose to give or withhold information as long as you appear pleasant and respectful. You don't have to remember the prices for your clothes, the rationale for your choices or any such personal information. You can simply state vague responses such as, "Oh I thought that was a good idea at the time."  You can simply repeat your answer when intrusive questions continue. Be sure to discuss these plans with your spouse or partner ahead of time so that your strategy is mutual. 


Plan for a reentry period when you return home so that you are not abruptly thrust into regular activities. Without a reentry period, vacations often turn sour and stress is magnified.  Have time to unpack, check email, pick up pets, etc., but also schedule some extra rest, personal time and family time to obtain the maximum enjoyment during the final moments of your holiday.


You can find additional information on this website. The Reading Room contains two articles about personal boundaries, an article about coping with holiday stress ("Jingle Bells") and an article about Positivity. The Advice Line section contains an article about coping with holiday depression ("Tis the Season to be Jolly.")


After you finish all your preparations, enjoy your holiday!