When the Holidays Make You Sad

Gretchen Rubin and Norman Rosenthal share five tips to lighten up the holiday blues.

Stressed young woman in front of Christmas tree
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Yet to find the ever-elusive holiday spirit? Has it not yet taken hold and draped you in a festive glow – a shimmer, even! – and filled you with wonder while wrapping gifts, sending cards and elbowing through the Target checkout line? Join the club.

Sometimes the holidays are not so jolly at all – they're flat-out sad. We're stressed. We're broke. We're lonely. We're preoccupied with the fact that Mom won't be around this year. These are sometimes the realities, while everyone around us seems to be selling a magical fantasy, urging us to be cheerful and merry and other adjectives that make sense for a Hallmark card, but not for you.

Hopefully, your holidays are merry and bright. But if they're not, these tips may bring some cheer. Below, Gretchen Rubin, author of the best-seller "The Happiness Project," and Norman Rosenthal, a psychiatrist and leading authority on seasonal affective disorder, share their advice.

Acknowledge negative thoughts and analyze them. "Sometimes, people think that a happy life is one that doesn't have any negative emotions," Rubin says. "That's not true. Negative emotions have a really important role to play in a happy life, because they show us what might need to change." Analyze your sadness to improve your situation, instead of brooding or pretending that everything is fine. Sometimes the source of what's bothering you is obvious; sometimes it's not. But if you try hard to shove your sadness under the spotlight and ask yourself, "What's really upsetting me?" then, often, you can find a solution or two.

[Read: How to Be Happier At Home: Tips from Gretchen Rubin.]

Maybe you feel lonely, cut off from traditions or stressed out. Say you feel like you're missing that sense of family you had as a kid. You may resolve to shell out for a last-minute plane ticket to spend the holidays with your sister, even if it's something you've never done before. Or maybe you'll simply schedule a video chat with your cousins a few states over. However, "if you never examine what's bothering you, sometimes you don't see a solution," Rubin says.

Of course, there are some sad situations for which there's no solution. A plane ticket won't bring back your mom, and it won't transport you to that fuzzy memory in 1990 when everything was the merriest it's ever been. You're a three-dimensional person who will not feel happy about everything all the time, so there's no point in pretending you're not feeling longing or grief for people who are gone, Rubin says. Acknowledge these feelings, and try to remember those missing from your dinner table. "There are some things that will make you as unhappy for as long as you live," Rubin says, "But put it in the context of other things that are looking up."

For practical tips for grieving during the holidays, check out blogs such as whatsyourgrief.com and centerforloss.com.

Let traditions evolve. Many folks clench tightly to holiday rituals and feel distressed when they change, Rubin says. When you analyze your negative thoughts, you may find this loss of tradition is contributing to your blues. For those people, Rubin suggests, "Don't just leave a gaping hole or feel like it's ruined forever. Try to re-imagine it so it can be good in a different, new way."

Easier said than done? Picture that treasured tradition. Wipe away the sepia tone, and consider what function the ritual serves and why it's important, Rubin says. Is the tradition important because it brings your family together? Does it connect you with your Italian heritage? Does it serve as an opportunity for spiritual reflection? "Then think, 'How can I serve this transcendent value?'" Rubin says. "'How can I be respectful to something that's important to me, but in a way that fits my new situation?'"

If you've gone to midnight mass for decades, but no one seems up to it anymore, this may be the year you discover that 8 p.m. mass can be special, too. Or perhaps when you realize you just want to see your family under one roof, you'll be more willing to pass hosting responsibilities to your kids.