Betty W. Phillips, Ph.D., Psychology
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Sleigh bells, Santa, family opening presents and gathering around the holiday feast -- a recipe for happiness. Or is it? Many people feel the time and effort is worth it to enjoy the holidays and family celebrations. But -- what about you? Some Chatham County readers have asked for suggestions about how to cope with holiday depression.

It's especially difficult to feel anxious or depressed when you are "supposed" to feel happy or joyous. The contrast between Christmas merriment and personal unhappy feelings may create even more distress. According to the grass is greener theory, "everyone else" is happy and you feel out of place when you can't be like everyone else. Many solutions are possible for this dilemma. I would group them in two categories: understanding feelings and family dynamics; and developing coping skills to increase personal happiness.

It is important to understand that no one enjoys the Mary Christmas/Happy New Year stereotype 100% of the time. The emotional and financial burdens of the holiday season take a heavy toll on everyone. Family activities, presents and meals deplete valuable time, financial resources and energy, especially during the fever pitch leading up to Christmas day. The overly optimistic expectations of the season invariably lead to disappointment. Understanding that tired and down feelings are usual and expected during the holiday season may provide some perspective that some of these feelings are indeed very normal.

Another important factor in understanding "holiday blues" is the realization that optimal family functioning is impossible, that many family activities will disappoint these rosy expectations, and that some families are in fact unsupportive or even dysfunctional. The contrast between our desires and yearnings for family love and comfort versus the reality of angry and stressful interactions may lead to feelings of depression and even hopelessness. When family interactions are disappointing, it is usually important to keep trying for family improvement rather than giving up. When family interactions are clearly dysfunctional, therapeutic intervention can be quite helpful.

Whenever the holiday and family context, as an individual you have the right and the need to optimize your own happiness. Happiness is really a state of mind which can be achieved whenever the situation. Your determination to maximize your happiness is a form of self care which has nothing to do with selfishness. Simply put, if you have a choice between feeling happy or unhappy, which would you choose? You always have this choice to turn your thoughts and feelings into a positive or unhappy state of mind. One tool which would help increase happiness on a daily basis would be to list and think about three things which made you feel positive and happy that day. Over time this practice will lead to greater feelings of peace and contentment. Since it is easier to change your thoughts than your affective state, begin to realize that external events always provide choices for you to feel happy or unhappy. Positive life events are usually a no-brainer in inducing feelings of happiness. But how can we cope with adversity? I do this myself, whenever necessary asking myself to turn my attention to finding whatever is positive in every situation. How, you ask, is it possible to find happiness in tragedy; for example, if your beloved family member is in the hospital, where is the enjoyment? Of course there is no enjoyment, but you can find some happiness and peace by focusing in on the positive feelings of love and care you can share with your sick family member.

If you want additional reading in this area, you can consult "You Can Be Happy No Matter What"; by Richard Carlson, New World Library 1977.