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Tuesday, November 30, 2010

Giving of Yourself as the Perfect Holiday Gift

Because the holiday season is both exciting and hectic, it is important to maintain a sense of balance and not allow the demands and frantic pace to overwhelm. Practicing good self-care during this time is not only advised – it is critical. It is also important to keep aware of ways to minimize difficult emotional stressors. The term “holiday blues syndrome” describes the downside of holiday occasions. It refers to the psychological problems such as depression that intensifies due to the failed expectations and the extreme stress created by the increase in demands.

Christmas shopping in the U.S. has been a reliable source of anxiety and stress for over a century. In 1894, The New York Tribune wrote: “As soon as the Thanksgiving turkey is eaten, the great question of buying Christmas presents begins to take the terrifying shape it has come to assume in recent years.” While this comment was made over one hundred years ago, the modern holiday season has often become more of a burden than an opportunity for joy and celebration. We overspend and over commit in many ways.

While there is joy in giving, the act of giving itself is the most important component of this season. However, there is considerable emotional pressure to flock to the malls or surf the internet, credit cards in hand to find perfect gifts. Finding that ideal gift is hard and forty percent of Americans report returning or “regifting” at least one gift each season. An alternative could be to emotionally focus on others and offer gifts of your time and gestures of caring.

Within a family, emotional gifts such as: a brother completing a chore for his sister, a daughter giving a dad a letter of gratitude, a mom setting aside a special “date” with her son, or a husband giving a gift of time for a special request from his wife; are important alternatives to the traditional store bought gestures. These thoughtful gifts of time and energy can be the most special of the holiday and are sure to generate the warmest feelings of appreciation.

Giving unselfishly is good for each of us emotionally and an important lesson to teach children. Focusing on the opportunities for giving to others outside the family can be a family experience. Cultivating a philanthropic perspective takes time, and children learn best by getting involved in charitable activities at an early age. The holidays are a time for family members and friends to reconnect with one another. Special family traditions are an important part of this season. This season, don’t forget the great gift you can offer together - -your time.

Support the organizations and causes you care about. Visits to local assisted living facilities or nursing homes, making cookies for your local firehouse or police station, donating good used toys or clothes to a shelter, and donating military care packages are all excellent ways to focus on others during this time of year or throughout the year.

Giving of self to others is one way to manage the stress of this season and to protect from the emotional difficulties many experience during the hectic holiday season. No matter what feelings the holidays bring up for you, remember you are in charge of your life. You needn’t have a knee-jerk reaction to this time of year. Celebrate in your way. It is important to set appropriate expectations for the season and focus on the things that really matter.

Monday, November 8, 2010

Thanksgiving is Good for Your Mental Health

As a psychologist dedicated to helping others achieve their goals for joy and satisfaction, I have come to believe that Thanksgiving is the most important holiday of the year. Spiritual leaders and philosophers have long taught the importance of gratitude in the development of contentment, enlightenment and achievement. In recent years the psychological profession has confirmed and validated these century old teachings with research.

R.A. Emmons and M.E. McCullough have engaged in a research project to investigate the nature of gratitude and its consequences for human health and well-being. While the research is ongoing, several publications are available that confirm the importance of gratitude in a variety of areas of life. This research has found that individuals who daily reflect on positives and thankfulness report higher levels of alertness, enthusiasm, determination, attentiveness and energy. These individuals also report fewer health problems, are more optimistic, and are more likely to make progress toward goals.

Grateful people report higher levels of positive emotions, life satisfaction and lower levels of depression and stress. While grateful people do not deny or ignore the negative aspects of life, they are found to focus on positives in their lives rather than becoming “stuck” in a negative perspective. Thankful people demonstrate a higher capacity for empathy and are rated by others as more generous and helpful. Gratefulness is also related to placing less importance on material wealth because these individuals are less likely to judge their own and others success by possessions, are less envious, and are more likely to share with others.

Gratefulness is a key to happiness. Even when not a natural part of a personality, it is possible to cultivate an attitude of thankfulness. Strive to be aware of all in your personal, professional, and family life (whether good health, relationships, freedom, or possessions) for which you are thankful. Focus on what you have – not on what you don’t have. Be mindful of nature and the beauty around you. Seek out others who have the characteristics you want for yourself. Moods and attitudes are contagious and spending time with complaining, negative and angry people will impair your ability to achieve your goal of positive focus and gratitude. Conversely, when you are demonstrating a positive and joyful life, you are helping those around you cultivate gratitude.

It is important to tell others often how they are appreciated and the blessings they bring to your life. Say “thank you” not in a perfunctory or obligatory manner but with heartfeltness and sincerity. Let others know how they touch your life, how much they help you and how appreciated they are.

Oprah Winfrey and Sarah Ban Breathnach, author of Simple Abundance propose keeping a “thankfulness journal” where each day you record five things about the day for which you are grateful. This is a simple but brilliant assignment. If you commit to this task you will find yourself more aware of the positives in each day because you will be looking for them. Too often, negatives have so much more power to get and keep our attention, and by encouraging a shift in focus to the many things in your life that make each day special, you will be practicing thankfulness.

As you celebrate this 2010 Thanksgiving, I encourage you commit to live with gratitude each day of the year. Thankfulness is good for your mental health and will enhance the life of your family and those around you. Thank you for sharing your time with me by reading this article. I appreciate any thoughts you would like to share with me.