Experiencing sadness during the holidays is not unusual. Fewer hours of sunlight, the often sharp contrast between the idyllic seasonal family scenes pictured in media and real life circumstances, and the impending conclusion of another year combine to make many people gloomy. The year’s end is a time of reflection, often accompanied by sadness, loneliness, loss of self-worth, and even anger. Sometimes, sadness is justified (the loss of a loved one, a job, or a marriage), but intensified due to the holiday season where others seem so happy and content. These emotions during the winter months have been recognized by the psychiatric community as seasonal affective disorder (SAD).
Depression and sadness, while superficially similar, are not the same. Depression is an illness; sadness is a state of mind. Dr. Ian Magill compared the two: “Sadness can distort our vision, so that rich colors are dimmed, but depression blocks out all light and leaves a blackened, desolate landscape.” Depression needs to be medically treated. If you or a friend are lethargic, tearful, reclusive, have difficulties with memory or concentration, or feel powerless, useless, or without hope, seek professional help. Depression is not a sign of weakness or failure, and it can be successfully treated.
Sadness Versus Melancholia
It is natural to experience a degree of sadness at this time of the year for a number of reasons:
- The Commercialization of the Holiday Season. The commercialization of the holidays can trigger feelings of inadequacy and failure in many people, particularly during tough economic times. At this time of year, retailers aggressively seek to manipulate buyers by equating expensive gifts with happiness. Their advertisements imply that the cost of a gift is directly related to the level of happiness felt by the recipient.
- Separation From Family Members. Whether separated by physical distance, death, or some other circumstance, going to grandmother’s house for Christmas is not always possible, nor is being home for the holidays.
- An Over-Emphasis on the Importance of the Year’s End. Many people view the end of the year as a “day of reckoning.” Each year is a unique period of time with a beginning on January 1st and an ending on December 31st. Just as we pay taxes on the past year’s income, we judge our success or failure on the events of the past 365 days. Everyone falls short at one time or another due to lack of effort, mistakes, or unforeseen events, and has unmet expectations resulting in disappointment, discomfort, and dismay.
Remember, the past year is just a single short chapter in the large book of your life, which is still being written. Virgil, Dante’s first guide through the underworld in “The Divine Comedy,” advised that “you must go another road if you wish to escape this savage place.” You have the same choice: You can choose to suffer in the sloughs of self-pity, or you can take a different road by striding ahead to the steppes of self-confidence and personal fulfillment.
Ways to Improve Your Mood
While one year ends, another begins and a new path becomes visible. As Tyler Durden, the protagonist and soap salesman in the movie “Fight Club” said, “We are defined by the choices we make.” In other words, we are who we are by what we choose to believe and how we act. Sadness and happiness are emotions that can be either indulged or changed by thoughts and actions. It is natural to review events in your own life when newscasters are repeating last year’s history ad nauseum, but to focus solely on your shortcomings or your lack of achievements is an exercise in masochism.
If you want to bust the cycle of the blues, you should do the following:
1. Resolve to Make Next Year Different
Change begins with a single resolution: I want to be happy. Inertia is a powerful state; it takes more energy to get moving than to keep moving. A bomb will not explode if the fuse is not lit, a car will not start without a key in the ignition, and a road can’t be traveled without an initial step. Your decision to be happy, rather than sad, is necessary and crucial to starting down a new path. As Norman Vincent Peale said, “Change your thoughts and you change your world.”
2. Review Your Failures and Work for Different Results
Albert Einstein supposedly said that doing the same thing over and over while expecting different results is the definition of insanity. Many people want to change their attitude and life, but never take steps that will result in the change. If the past year’s events sadden you or the holiday season is likely to leave you disappointed, you need to identify the reasons why and how you can either change the outcome or your reactions to the outcome. For example, you cannot keep loved ones forever, but you can choose to remember them as they lived, rather than how they died. You can live in the past or look to the future, view mistakes as tragedies or as lessons, and treat shortcomings as insurmountable or opportunities to be exploited. The choice is yours.
3. Change Your Emotional Neighborhood
Negative emotions feed upon themselves, spiraling the thinker ever deeper into a pit of despondency. Sadness is like living in a ghetto of despair; however, extending your horizons and revisiting old connections and interests can help you regain emotional balance. The following acts can help you become a happier, more confident person:
- Get in Touch With Friends and Family. Spending time with other people, particularly those with whom you have or had a positive relationship, is therapeutic regardless of your mental state. Interacting with another person forces you to forget yourself, if only for the moment. Call distant family members to tell them how much you love and miss them, reminisce with old school friends about events “back in the day,” start a weekly coffee group with coworkers, or go to a sporting event with a neighbor.
- Get a Dog. Research proves that there are many benefits of owning a dog. For instance, petting a friendly dog lowers blood pressure, slows heart rate, relaxes tension-filled muscles, and reduces the production of stress-related hormones faster than many drugs taken for stress. The effects build up over time, improving quality of life and longevity. A non-pet owner is four times more likely to be depressed than a pet owner of the same age. As men have discovered, a friendly dog is the perfect “wingman,” with strangers more likely to talk with a person walking a dog than a lone walker. There is a reason that dogs became man’s best friend more than 15,000 years ago.
- Laugh More. Cancer Treatment Centers of America uses “humor therapy sessions” to treat patients and help their families deal with the deadly disease of cancer. Research suggests that laughing makes you feel better about yourself and the world around you. Furthermore, it boosts the immune and circulatory systems, enhances oxygen intake, relieves pain, and triggers the release of endorphins, the body’s “feel good” neurotransmitters. According to Robert Provine, psychologist and researcher, laughter is a “social vocalization that binds people together,” a hidden language programmed by our genes. Laughter is contagious and irresistible; some scientists believe that humans have an “auditory laugh detector” – a neural circuit in the brain that responds exclusively to laughter. As 18th century poet Lord Byron said, “Always laugh when you can – it is cheap medicine.”
- Volunteer and Help Others. If you go to a church, synagogue, or mosque, join one of their community outreach programs. If not, find a charity in your community and volunteer your time. Research indicates that volunteering as little as 100 hours per year (approximately two hours per week) reduces anxiety and increases positive feelings. “It’s good for your self-esteem, it makes you feel generous, [and] it makes you feel in control,” says Dr. Ellen J. Langer of Harvard University. Some have described the sense of euphoria that volunteers experience as akin to a “runner’s high,” producing lower stress levels and improved moods.
The holiday season can bring with it extraordinary pressure, and this, combined with negative events in everyday life, can make the season extremely stressful. Not surprisingly, rising stress levels trigger and accentuate negative feelings, such as sadness, grief, and regret. These emotions are part of every human’s experience, and are necessary for a balanced and healthy mental state. However, when these feelings overwhelm and dominate your thinking and actions, it is time to let them go. Let your mind work for you, and not against you, to change your mood so you can be happier and more fulfilled.
Have you felt sad during the holidays? What other ways have you learned to cope with negative emotions?