Actually Having a Happy Holiday

Jay Michaelson
December 12, 2018

We are approaching the longest nights of the year. These are the days when human bodies tend to slow down, to add more weight for the winter, to sleep. And, not coincidentally, these are the days in which cultures around the world celebrate light: first Diwali, then Chanukah, then Christmas. And other festivals as well.

For many people, the good cheer and family time of the holiday season ease the burden of darkness. Yet for many others, the holiday season is the most difficult of the year, and the relentless major-key music and myths of family harmony only worsen the natural ebbs of December. Many people are at their loneliest and most despondent precisely when our culture acts as though everyone is warm, partnered, and together.

Personally, I love a lot about the winter that has nothing to do with presents from friends or the presence of loved ones. I love the steam rising from laundry vents, the indoor smells of incense and firewood, the warmth of thick stew. I even love, sometimes, the alterations in my mood: more solitude, more loneliness, more melancholy. They go together, the winter outside and the winter of the heart. There is a song of winter, but for me, it is composed in minor keys more than major ones.

Not surprisingly, these movements of winter parallel those of contemplative practice. 

First, there is a subtle joy that emerges simply from yielding; from letting go the urge to be happy in a certain way, to celebrate the season in a certain way. This is familiar from meditation: as soon as I stop trying to relax, I can relax. As soon as I stop trying to feel joy, I can feel joy. The primary obstacle to happiness is the relentless search for happiness. 

You can feel this somatically in meditation. There’s often a straining or tensing of muscles when there’s a straining to feel a certain way. Quickly the search for happiness turns, like TV commercials in December, into its opposite. When I let my feelings be what they are, there’s a joy in releasing that resistance.

Second, I find a joy in the transparency of truth – or, if you prefer, of non-denial. Sylvia Boorstein, whose teachings I quote often perhaps because she is so good at pithy phrases, often talks about phrases like “it’s not what I wanted, but it’s what I got.” This can sound like wallowing in self-pity, but in fact it’s the opposite: it’s the courage, and the joy, of being truthful with experience.  I may have wanted something else, but, as the cliché goes, it is what it is. I can “be with my experience,” as long time meditators often say, without BS’ing myself about what that experience is. That feels great.

Third, all this clear-seeing that comes from mindfulness and meditation – just noticing what’s happening in a non-judgmental, honest, contemplative way – can lead to a lot more appreciation of the good stuff. We all know that we’re surrounded by blessings every day: health, some degree of safety, people whom we care about, and very subtle joys like eating, breathing, and moving around in the world. But how do we actually appreciate them, let alone feel grateful that they exist?

I’ll give you a hint: it’s not by making ourselves feel bad that we’re not as grateful as we should be. You can’t shame yourself into authentic gratitude – you can only ease into it by noticing, reflecting, and appreciating. There’s no shortcut, no ought-to-be-grateful gratitude; that only makes it worse.

But when there’s clear seeing of even the simplest things – a blanket, a chickadee, a memento from a trip – gratitude can arise on its own. 

And, finally, so can a sense of balance. If you’re not part of that minority of people who are blissfully married with happy, grateful children; who have no serious health issues or economic concerns; whose Christmas life is all sweaters and gift boxes and happy carols of mirth – if, in other words, you’re part of the large majority whose lives don’t look like the ubiquitous images of the holiday season, it’s easy to feel like you’re not measuring up. It’s easy to feel envy of those who (supposedly) are.

With these movements of the mindful mind – yielding, accepting, appreciating – it’s possible to balance those entirely natural feelings with actual joy and loving-kindness. Ironically, precisely by letting go of the holiday season’s relentless pursuit of “good will,” you can actually experience good will. It’s a funny trick – or at least, it would be funny if so many people weren’t suffering so much. 

Have an authentically happier holiday.


Dr. Jay Michaelson has been teaching meditation for fifteen years in secular, Buddhist, and Jewish communities. Jay is a journalist on CNN Tonight and at Rolling Stone, having been a weekly columnist for the Daily Beast for eight years. Jay was also an editor and podcast host for Ten Percent Happier for four years. He's an affiliated professor at Chicago Theological Seminary. Jay’s eight books include "The Gate of Tears: Sadness and the Spiritual Path" and the brand new "Enlightenment by Trial and Error".

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