Want More Holiday Joy? Practice Appreciation!

Woman joyfully hanging string lights while wearing an antler headband

The holidays can be such a magical time: the lights, the music, the glitter, the poignancy of childhood memories. Because the holidays can bring up such a range of emotions in all of us, it isn’t unusual to read blogs and articles on how to handle the stress of the holidays. And this is important! Yet, amid the shopping, parties, family stress, and disappointment we might feel because the holidays are sometimes less magical than those we remember as children, it is also possible to increase our joy by finding little ways to celebrate the delights of the holidays.

One way to greatly increase our joy is to practice appreciation. In the mindfulness tradition, a quality called appreciative joy plays an important role in creating a balanced, long-term form of happiness. Appreciative joy is deliberately cultivated along with other qualities (loving-kindness, compassion, and equanimity) and as you might imagine, it is a satisfying and heartfelt way to increase happiness any time of year…but it is especially satisfying to cultivate it over the holidays.

So, how do we practice appreciative joy?

Growing joy by taking in the good

Rick Hanson, PhD, neuropsychologist and author of books such as Hardwiring Happiness and Resilient: How to Grow an Unshakable Core of Calm, Strength, and Happiness, describes a process for taking in positive experiences so that they become a steady, internal sense of joy and confidence. He developed a four-step process he calls HEAL that we can use to increase an inner strength and steady sense of joy. HEAL is an acronym for the four steps, three of which will be described below. (The final step, linking the feeling to the feelings generated by a past negative experience, is described in detail in the books mentioned above).

Have a positive experience. Every day, we experience – and tend to overlook – dozens of tiny positive experiences: appreciating the warmth of a quilt when awakening on a blustery winter day; drinking a cup of tea or coffee; experiencing the laughter of a small child or the smile of a friendly colleague. According to Dr. Hanson, due to our brain’s negativity bias, we tend to filter out these many pleasant occurrences each day. So, one key to joy is to deliberately notice these experiences.

Enrich it. Once we have made a point to notice these small, positive daily experiences, we take a moment to enrich the experience by really experiencing them. Here we allow ourselves 10-20 seconds to really feel the quiet joy in our body, noticing what it feels like to experience this good feeling.

Absorb it. This step allows the positive experience to become wired into our brains and nervous system, in a sense, so that we can draw upon it in the future. We set an intention to really let this good feeling sink into us, perhaps imagining the feeling as a color and letting it permeate our body or imagining the feeling planting a seed in our heart.

The holiday season is a lovely time of year to try the above strategy. As you go through your day, really tune into and notice the aspects of the holidays that fill you with joy. (There is no need to pretend that the constant presence of holiday music fills you with joy if it, in fact, does not!) The strands of lights adorning trees around town, moments of laughter as you enjoy a favorite holiday comedy movie, a surprise group of carolers as you shop, the first sip of homemade cocoa or first taste of a holiday cookie, the sight of snowflakes slowly drifting down, the feeling of leaving the office the last day before a holiday break…whatever is pleasant or enjoyable, just taking a few extra moments to really feel the good feelings can add immensely to your feelings of joy.

Cultivating gratitude by appreciating interdependence

Noticing the many conditions that must come together before we can enjoy a simple holiday event can be another way to cultivate joy through gratitude. Noticing this interdependence of conditions can help us to increase our joy exponentially. Take a moment to consider the many people it takes to create a simple event like a tree lighting ceremony or a choral concert, the hours of planning that went into it, the sheer number of people it takes to pull off what seems to be a simple event like clockwork. For instance, consider a typical seasonal concert. Not only does such a concert require a conductor, musicians, and singers, but lighting staff, ushers, box office staff, set-up staff, even the audience! Then, to take your appreciation to another level, consider the effort that led to simply one musician being present that day. The hours of practice for many years to become skillful on an instrument; the love and patience of the parents or caregivers in taking a child to lessons and concerts; the wood that was used to build a violin, which required nature to do its part in growing a tree. Now multiply this by every musician on stage! It is truly awe-inspiring to contemplate how much effort and how many conditions must come together for each performer to be present on a stage, right now, in front of us, providing music to bring us the joy of the holidays.

A few other ideas:

With some thoughtfulness and creativity, there are many other ways we can pump up the joy of the season. 

  • Practice mindful cooking and savoring. Try making cocoa from scratch and take time to really savor the flavor.
  • Create your own private or family rituals. Take time to light candles and enjoy a favorite holiday movie in the ambient glow (maybe with some of that homemade cocoa). 
  • Participate in free community events. Most communities offer free concerts, guided nature walks, holiday-themed museum events…community events abound during the holiday season.
  • Practice simple acts of service. Make cookies or other treats to take to a nursing home. Pick up small gifts at a dollar store to hand out to your co-workers. 
  • Go on a sleigh ride. Enjoy the clop, clop of the horse hooves while you take in fresh air, the sparkling snow, and the winter sky.
  • Take a drive to view holiday lights and really notice the infinite number of colors and textures.
  • Listen to music that is meaningful to you. Whether cherished Christmas hymns or music from your favorite old movies, listening to music can bring back the warmth of days gone by.
  • Have a holiday movie-themed party. Encourage friends to dress up as characters from the movie.
  • Revisit simple traditions from your childhood. What rituals or activities brought joy to you and your family when you were growing up? How can you honor them now?
  • Explore the holiday traditions of other cultures. The holiday season is rich with history, and it can be enriching to experience a new aspect of the holidays. Christmas, Hanukkah, Kwanzaa, Yule, Solstice – it can be interesting to respect and celebrate the many aspects of the holiday season.

Appreciation feeds goodwill and natural generosity

Finally, practicing appreciation is a lovely way to celebrate the season that is often considered a celebration of goodwill to all. By taking in and savoring the good, appreciating the interdependence inherent in life, and taking time to celebrate the season in a way that is meaningful to us, we are constantly, gradually feeding our internal sense of joy. We are then more likely to feel a natural sense of generosity that reaches out to others and truly, genuinely wishes them well.