Reclaiming Joy This Holiday Season

A woman outside in a gray scarf is smiling as snow is falling.

If you are among the many people who find it challenging to be joyful right now, you’re not alone. We all experience difficulties – from minor annoyances to significant hardship – that can make joy elusive. Our world is struggling. We are living in a collective trauma and must acknowledge the role that plays in how we feel and experience the world. In addition, many misunderstand the nature of joy. Society tells us that joy should be effortless and arrive on cue with events like holidays and special occasions. It’s true that there are times where joy just shows up. But often one must work to uncover joy. Today, especially with all the challenges of 2020, we can and must work harder than ever to create joy because we deserve it. The outcome can not only change our approach to life, but also empower those around us.

There are so many ways to find joy if we make the conscious choice to try.

When I say choice, I mean mindfully engaging in small acts that result in a more joyful outcome. For example, I was in New York City recently, and I was shocked at how transformed the city was, with empty streets and boarded up storefronts. The upbeat energy and feeling of infinite possibilities that I associate with my walks around Manhattan were missing. And then I thought, “I see this. What do I want to do about it?”

I decided I would create connection, because that is one of the ways I experience joy. So, I intentionally made eye contact and smiled at people. I said hello. I sent out prayers for the folks living on the street. I believe these small acts can build a bridge between each of us as human beings and replace the feeling of misery with one of love and results in joy.

Cultivating joy

Ultimately, choosing joy is a process. We must learn what to hold close and what to let go. In recovery, it’s helpful to create a gratitude practice to help us focus on what’s important and what we can leave on the cutting room floor.

For me, the Italian response to the pandemic embodied this principal. When the pandemic rampantly impacted Italy, for example, families played music, sang and danced on their rooftops. They embraced the wind in their hair and the view from their windows. They celebrated being alive despite the limitations imposed by the quarantine.

The good news is that we can also cultivate more joy in our lives. Here are ways to get started:

Embrace acceptance. Those of us in recovery know there are many things we can’t control. By accepting that we cannot control what is outside of us, like the pandemic, or political turmoil, we can let that go and focus on what we can manage in a positive way.

Find purpose: We all need to get out of our heads and connect to something bigger than ourselves. There are still ways to volunteer and give to those in need. There are plenty of options – from taking time to listen virtually to the stories of an older adult in your life to safely delivering meals to those who are isolated.

Experience magic: When is the last time you watched a sunset, walked through a forest, or sat in a lavender-scented bubble bath? I remember visiting family in a little town in Connecticut years ago. One night I couldn’t sleep so I put on my brother-in-law's boots and walked out into snow that was up to my knees. I sat on a bench with a streetlamp nearby and watched as my footprints disappeared, covered up by the falling snow. These moments cost little to nothing and are opportunities for us to feel connected to our spirit and our bodies – to embrace the pure joy of being alive.

Appreciate others. Methodists talk about finding "a slender thread" of good in someone, no matter how small. When we take time to notice and appreciate those around us, we feel more connected and positive, which opens the door to joy.

Celebrate simple achievements. Taking pride in a simple act can make room for joy. Even if our achievement is making the bed, that feeling of taking care of yourself – creating a peaceful space – can lead to joy.

Practice compassion and kindness. Sometimes it's the act of kindness that goes a long way to help someone. That can be as basic as picking up the phone to check in and really listening to how a friend or loved one is doing, sending a thoughtful gift, or even running an errand for a neighbor. But compassion and kindness must start with how you treat yourself because that will make all the difference in how you engage with the outside world.

Lighten your load. We cannot do everything, especially in this time of COVID. Lingering internal messages that make you feel like you must do everything perfectly will only serve to exhaust and paralyze you. Instead, prioritize what really matters. That may mean reading a bedtime story and dealing with the dirty laundry tomorrow.

Modify your space: As human beings, we respond to our environment. These days we are spending more time than ever before at home. A space that reflects our authentic self can boost our feelings of positivity and make room for joy to begin. I’m talking about simple touches such as adding a brighter bulb, putting up holiday lights, posting inspirational quotes, meaningful photos or even painting a room a misty blue or a bold red – whatever soothes you or makes you feel alive. Scents can also make a difference – whether it’s a pumpkin pie candle or latkes cooking on the stove.

As we move into the holiday season, many of us are shifting traditions this year due to the pandemic. As scary as it may seem, I encourage you to embrace the change, talk about it openly and take authentic steps to honor both the pain and the joy within yourself.

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