In the 1965 holiday classic, A Charlie Brown Christmas, Charlie Brown finds himself depressed despite the onset of the cheerful holiday season. While our perpetually bummed out protagonist was dealing with the blues caused by the heavy commercialization of his favorite holiday, he was not dealing with a pandemic, on-again off-again plans, homeschooling, a recession or global tensions related to racial equality, human rights, political conspiracies and challenges to democracy. Oh, or murder hornets.
Regardless of what you personally may be dealing with, in 2020 we are all Charlie Brown.
Instead of visiting Lucy‘s psychiatric booth to tell her our problems, following her advice to plan a neighborhood Christmas play (Note to Lucy: We can’t, there’s a pandemic going on!), and being mocked by our friends, dog (Snoopy) and bird (Woodstock), we can jump straight to the part where Linus reminds us about the true meaning of the holidays.
We may find ourselves stressed out and sheltering in place waiting for Santa to drop a safe, effective and hopefully reasonably priced vaccine into our collective stocking. But we can still get the most out of Linus’ sage advice (taking the secular route here) to “enjoy and embody tidings of great joy… peace on earth… and good will toward all.”
Here are ten tips inspired by the Peanuts gang to take care of yourself and get more joy out of this most unusual 2020 holiday season.
Welcome and acknowledge your feelings.
Charlie Brown said, “I think there must be something wrong with me, Linus. Christmas is coming, but I’m not happy. I don’t feel the way I’m supposed to feel.” If you’re feeling lonely, lost your job, or someone close to you is sick or has recently passed away, know that it’s normal to feel sadness and grief. Take the time to cry or share your feelings. We can’t force ourselves to be happy just because it’s the holiday season. Fully engage with your thoughts and emotions, manage them instead of being managed by them, and use the steps that follow to help move yourself to a happier mindset.
Bringing everyone together is a bad idea. Don’t fall for the old “We’re family. We’ve only been seeing each other. Plus, Blake and Charlotte are coming home from college. Jimmy’s back from the Army. And Grandma wants to see everyone…” trick. If you’re wondering what could go wrong, I was reminded last week when a client shared that a two-hour family birthday party in Chicago resulted in all 14 attendees getting the rona, including two family members over 70 years old.
We all want to return to “normal” as soon as possible, but letting your guard down is the equivalent of Lucy encouraging Charlie Brown to kick the football and then pulling it away so he falls flat on his back. He fell for it. Every. Holiday. Special. We’re on our third COVID spike. We know better.
Set realistic expectations.
Share an open understanding with your family that the holidays will be different this year. Not everything will be perfect. Choose a few traditions to hold on to and challenge the family to create some new ones. Brainstorm around what tools can connect the family. For example, what portions of the meal or evening can you share over a video call? Preserve the most important aspects of your traditions and really enjoy them. From there, be open to whatever happens. In 2020, good enough is the plan. Let go of perfect.
Connect with family and friends.
Charlie Brown said, “Absence makes the heart grow fonder, but it sure makes the rest of you lonely.” While a “normal” holiday season can bring anxiety related to not enough togetherness, too much togetherness, in-laws or fears of interacting with relatives blinded by (insert your most annoying bias, phobia or crazy conspiracy here), it’s important to recognize that the pandemic has increased feelings of loneliness and depression for many.
According to the University of California, America was already facing a loneliness epidemic prior to the pandemic. It’s only gotten worse. Reach out to friends and family to talk about what you’re going through – or just to hear a friendly voice. Embrace video calls to see friendly faces as often as you can. If you’re not feeling lonely personally, reach out to others who may be struggling. As Sally said, “When no one loves you, you have to pretend that everyone loves you.”
Stick to your normal routines and stay active.
The holiday season can draw you into dramatically changing your lifestyle. It’s a time when many tend to eat and drink too much and sleep too little. The temptation to overindulge can cause prolonged stress from dealing with weight gain, debt, fatigue or the embarrassment of a drunk tumble into the Christmas tree. Instead, avoid the guilt and shame by sticking to your normal routines for eating, drinking and sleeping.
And be sure to stay active. Get outside as often as you can. Research shows that physical exercise releases feel-good endorphins and helps to lower the risk of sadness and depression. Being active also helps to take that distracted, worrying mind and get it focused on a beautiful hike or a nice walk & talk with the family.
Avoid social comparison and needless spending.
The key theme of A Charlie Brown Christmas was that commercialism can cause us to forget what’s important. Lucy Van Pelt said, “Look, Charlie, let’s face it. We all know that Christmas is a big commercial racket.”
Try to avoid wasting time envy-scrolling through the greatest hits of your friend’s pretend lives on Facebook and Instagram. Research shows that social comparison feeds anxiety, depression and feelings of inadequacy. Instead, spend that time planning out meaningful experiences with the real people in your life. Set aside time for baking, shopping and connecting with friends and loved ones.
And when it comes to shopping, do what’s right for your family. If you’re able to, buy local to help keep the stores in your town afloat. If your own gang is strapped for cash, a Secret Santa is a great alternative. Or skipping gifts altogether and donating to the many charities that are so desperately in need may be even better.
Anything you can do to be intentional with your time, attention and money helps to calm the mind – and avoid last-minute scrambles to live up to The Real Housewives of Wherever to make the holidays “perfect”. They won’t be perfect. This year, fun and relaxing is enough. And you are always enough.
Scale back and support local businesses.
If working from home, Zooming, homeschooling, and dealing with family members stuck on election conspiracies has you feeling a bit overwhelmed, look for ways to scale the holidays back. Instead of sending 100 holiday cards that will be recycled faster than you can say “Oh, good grief”, send 10 or a group email. If the holiday meal will be 6 instead of 30, focus on the quality of experience over the quantity of food. Scale back the side dishes and desserts. Better yet, buy them from your local restaurants. If you’re feeling pinched, remember that over 100,000 restaurants have already closed during the pandemic. They need our support.
Research from Harvard Health has shown that just being thankful can make you happier. Charlie Brown said, “In the book of life, the answers aren’t in the back.” Appreciating the good things in our lives helps to cultivate a positive and hopeful mindset that can carry over into other aspects of your life. One of the great answers to life is that you can make positivity a habit. Consider starting a gratitude journal – or simply naming 2-3 things you’re grateful for every evening when your head hits the pillow. Many of life’s answers are in appreciating the good and allowing that to always outweigh what we sometimes perceive as bad.
Replace judgment with kindness.
The holidays are a great time to set aside differences and accept family members for who they are versus longing for who you think they used to be. Yes, your family is flawed, but they are also awesome even when they don’t live up to your expectations. Right now is a great time to set aside politics and grievances. Others are likely feeling the effects of 2020 and holiday stress too. According to neurobiologist R. Douglas Fields, there are nine triggers that really push our buttons. You might hit a lot of them during the holidays. Instead of allowing yourself to be triggered by Uncle Bill’s tipsy off-color rantings, set an intention to laugh things off and respond with kindness.
The act of planning a mindful reaction (or no reaction) can result in much more pleasant mindful experiences. As Snoopy said, “There’s no sense barking if you don’t really have anything to say.”
It can also be helpful to remind yourself that difficult relatives are probably suffering. There are reasons we all act the way we do. Remembering this can help you to soften any feelings of frustration to offer empathy and compassion in the moment.
Linus said “I guess it’s wrong always to be worrying about tomorrow. Maybe we should think only about today.” To this, the constant bummer that is Charlie Brown responded, “No, that’s giving up. I’m still hoping that yesterday will get better.” Much of our holiday stress is the result of ongoing regret about the past or worry for the future. In both cases, when we’re anxious, we tend to breathe at a very shallow rate. That means we deprive our bodies of the oxygen we need.
Remember to fit in five minutes a day for a mindfulness meditation practice. Take a few deep, cleansing breaths to train your attention and reduce stress, anxiety, and negativity while getting the oxygen needed to feel at your best. By being more mindful, we allow ourselves to stay present in the moment, look inward to calm and reassure ourselves and slow down to connect to our intentions and be more open, curious and non-judgemental. Anchoring in the present moment and focusing on one thing at a time helps us to be happier and healthier moment by moment.
If you’re having a tough holiday season, you’re not alone. Recognize that stress is normal. “Eustress”, that feeling of nervous excitement knowing we’re ready for a challenge, has been shown to be a good thing for our emotional, physical and psychological wellbeing. But packing in too many holiday plans or activities, even fun ones, can cause distress that can leave us feeling lacking and jumpy instead of loving and jolly.
As a final tip, seek out help if you need it. If you find that no matter what you do, sadness, anxiety, loneliness or insomnia just won’t leave you, talk to your doctor or a mental health professional. No matter the time of year, we all need help sometimes. And remember one final tip from good old Charlie Brown,
“Keep looking up. That’s the secret to life.”
Happy holidays! May you and your family be safe and well.
About the Author
Retired Founder and CEO of Whil and former President of Headspace
Joe is an entrepreneur in the digital wellness space, retired Founder and CEO of Whil and former President of Headspace, and spent fifteen years as a global COO in public companies. He’s an alumnus of Harvard Business School and a regular contributor to Forbes, Business Insider and The Huffington Post. He’s worked in over 50 countries and travels the world speaking on topics including disruption, culture, resiliency and mindfulness.