by Dr. Christine Carter

Gratitude is the key to happiness–especially when we are busy and stressed. We are entering into the “happiest time of year”—we hope. It’s certainly the season in which we feel the most compelled to be “merry.”

But many parents I know are already starting to feel overwhelmed by the sheer amount of holiday-related tasks and traditions ahead. I know I’ve got to start thinking about holiday cards, teacher gifts, the five—OMG, five! what was I thinking?—holiday parties I’m hosting, getting a tree, working out gifts … and that doesn’t even begin to cover some of our special family traditions around the holidays. Will we go see the Nutcracker this year? Make my grandmother’s spritz cookies? Have breakfast with Santa in the town where I grew up? What day will we celebrate Hanukkah with our friends? Where will we spend New Year’s Eve?

Excuse me while I stop writing this post. I need to go shopping for Thanksgiving dinner (I’m hosting).

Before you, too, start to freak out, let’s all take a moment. There IS a way to enjoy this season; see below for my holiday burnout prevention plan.

1. Start with gratitude. The key to a happy holiday season is right in front of us: There is, of course, a holiday dedicated to gratitude this month.

Use Thanksgiving as a time to give thanks for people in your life. In our family, we appreciate each other by writing on our dinner table place cards. The kids make giant construction paper place cards for each guest, and as people arrive and mingle, we ask everyone to set aside time to write on the inside of each place card something that they love or appreciate about that person.

Then, after Thanksgiving, use this season to consciously weave gratitude into your daily interactions, using the common question “How are you?” as a trigger to practice gratitude.

Here’s what I mean. Say you run into another parent at the school winter performance. “How’s it going?” she asks.

If you are like me, you’ll be tempted to tell her 1,000 ways that you are busy. And she’ll counter with another 10 billion ways that she, also, is busy, busy, busy. And you’ll both start to feel a bit overwhelmed.

But we can change how we feel by using “How are you?” as a prompt to reflect on something for which we are grateful, then share that thought with the other person. Or keep it to yourself, if you’re feeling shy (or don’t want to seem like you’re bragging). Either way, taking that moment for gratitude is likely to give you a happiness boost and slightly improve the emotional tone of your holiday season.

2. Simplify, simplify, simplify Make this season about friends, family, and giving back to others—not about purchasing, wrapping, and distributing gifts. Materialism and consumption are NOT happiness habits. Loads of presents will not make this season memorable for your children—but your family traditions will.

3. Remember what matters ‘Tis the season to help others, and to give our children the opportunity to experience how much better it feels to give than to receive. (It’s true! Research shows that we get a bigger happiness boost by spending on someone else than we do by receiving a gift.)

This year, establish family tradition that gives kids a chance to give back to their community, or to help others. My kids and I are putting together “care kits” for the homeless people who live near where we go for a big tree lighting and some ice skating in San Francisco. And the BigHeartedFamily.org website suggests TONS of great activities for kids of any age to help others.

What matters most are other people, and the ways that we love them. This is the most wonderful time of year for reconnecting with our friends and family, and for telling them what we appreciate most about them.

Bio: 

Christine Carter, Ph.D.*, is a sociologist and happiness expert at UC Berkeley’s Greater Good Science Center. She is the author of “RAISING HAPPINESS: 10 Simple Steps for More Joyful Kids and Happier Parents.” She teaches online happiness classes that help parents bring more joy into their own lives and the lives of their children, and she writes an award-winning blog for *Greater Good* (www.greatergoodparents.org).