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Psychological, and merciful, wisdom for enjoying the holidays with friends and family

Stephanie Wilsey, Ph.D. -

The holidays can be a time of joy, with opportunities to have a break from work to celebrate and enjoy time with friends and families. However, increased social interactions and increased interpersonal conflict may go hand in hand. Particularly in our fraught political climate, the temptation can be to withdraw and avoid. Great minds in psychology offer some timeless truths and guidelines that can help one to navigate the holidays with others.

Be interdependent
While adults in the Western world are often encouraged to become independent beings, people actually need one another in order to operate in a healthy way.
Researcher and therapist Erik Erikson said: “Life doesn’t make any sense without interdependence. We need each other, and the sooner we learn that, the better for us all.”
During the holidays, particularly through challenging conversations, remind yourself that it is better for you to engage with others than to be alone. While everyone needs some down time, and it is healthy to recharge as needed, taking the opportunity to be with others is crucial for psychological well-being.

Embrace gratitude
Research on the link between happiness and gratitude is starting to enter the public sphere. During this time of year, it’s good to remember how important gratitude is. One can’t halt stressful feelings just by telling oneself to stop. These feelings must be replaced by something positive. Reflecting on what you’re grateful for is a perfect way to refocus from the hustle and bustle of the holidays. Barry Schwartz, a professor and research in the science of decision-making, says, “We can regret less, and be grateful for, what is good in life.
Focusing on the positive and taking time each day to reflect on what you are grateful for can go a long way in establishing feelings of calm throughout the holidays. You can then approach social interactions from a place of peace.

Show compassion
Modern research is also showing that helping others has an unintended positive effect of increasing your own happiness as well. Imagine approaching others each day with a stance of compassion and care.
Emotion researcher Dacher Keltner, who was consulted as a psychological expert for the Pixar film “Inside Out,” says: “Compassion does not render people tearful idlers, or passive onlookers; but individuals who will take on the pain of others, even when given the chance to skip out on such difficult action or in anonymous conditions.”
Rather than assume the worst intentions of others, consider giving them the benefit of the doubt. When you do or say something negative in a way that is uncharacteristic of you, you are aware of the circumstances in your life that influenced your behavior. You were there, after all! For instance, you may be under stress, had a bad day at work, are experiencing grief or feeling ill. Realize that others may have the same constraints on their behavior and may be acting due to pain, sadness — or just a really bad day. The tendency to give ourselves a free pass due to situational factors while blaming the inner character of others is called Fundamental Attribution Error in social psychology. We can counteract it by assuming the best of others and, even more so, choosing to show compassion whenever possible.
Moral theologian and ethicist James Keenan says that “mercy is the willingness to enter into the chaos of another.” We often don’t want to deal with our own chaos, let alone someone else’s!
But giving our time and attention to someone else is good for them and for us. It takes our eyes off of our own problems, gives others the help that they need and elevates each of us for the betterment of all.
This holiday season, remind yourself to enjoy time with others, remember the things that are lovely and beautiful in your life and look for ways to show compassion to others.

The holidays also can be a great time to reevaluate your career. Learn about ways to grow professionally by visiting Carlow University’s College of Professional Studies.


About the Author: Wilsey, who holds a Ph.D. in applied developmental psychology, is dean of the College of Leadership and Social Change at Carlow University. Wilsey oversees faculty, students and programs across five departments: Business and Accounting, Social Work, Psychology and Counseling, Communication, and Political Science.
Contact: Stephanie Wilsey, Ph.D.