Happiness and celebration go hand and hand. Ever since I was a little girl, I remember Christmas time as magical. My mom made this time so special. I have memories of her singing Christmas Carols in the car. She would take us to see the Nutcracker and the Rockettes, or the lighting of the tree in New York City. She would stay home a few days and watch cartoons and cook us our favorite meals. Today, long gone are memories of any toys other than the cabbage patch, and honestly those things were just things, unimportant in remembering the most important things, the love we shared.
Research seems to agree that relationships, rather than things are the key to happiness and the holidays are a time to really reflect on what’s important in life. For many, the chase for happiness is often not what we think it is. Robert Waldinger, the Director of the Harvard Study of Adult Development, analyzes longitudinal studies on the topic of happiness and what makes a “good life”. In fact, one study evaluating life satisfaction, has been going since 1938, perhaps one of the longest longitudinal studies in history. In his recent TED talk, Waldinger explains that the biggest lesson was that good relationships keep people happy, and that “loneliness kills”. He goes on to suggest that loneliness can be “toxic” and affect brain health and length of lifespan. The “quality of close relationships” and living in warm relationships is what matters, he explains. The greatest predictor of happiness and health was the quality of relationships.
“So this message that good close relationships are good for our health and well-being. This is wisdom that’s as old as the hills, why is it so easy to get, and so easy to ignore? Well, we’re human. What we really like is a quick fix, something we can get that will make our lives good and keep them that way. Relationships are messy, and they’re complicated, and the hard work of tending to family and friends, it’s not sexy or glamorous. It’s also lifelong, it never ends. The people in the 75 year study who were the happiest in retirement were those who actively worked to replace workmates with playmates… . . Just like the Millennials in that recent survey, many of our men when they were starting out as young adults really believed that fame and wealth and high achievement were what they had needed to go after to have a good life, but over and over, over these 75 years, our study has shown that the people who fared the best are the people who leaned into relationships with family, with friends, with community. So what about you. . . .what might leaning into relationships even look like? . . . It might be something as simple as replacing screen time with people time. Or livening up a stale relationships by doing something new together, long walks or date nights or reaching out to that family member you haven’t spoken to in years, because those all too common family feuds take a terrible toll on the people who hold the grudges. I’d like to close with a quote from Mark Twain, More than a century ago he was looking back on his life, and he wrote this, “There isn’t time, so brief is life, for bickerings, apologies, heartburnings, callings to account. There is only time for loving, and but an instant, so to speak, for that.” ” -Robert Waldinger, Director of the Harvard study of Human Development, excerpted from his TED talk, 2015).
You can’t buy the holidays, you create them. They are about so much more than “things”, they are about celebrating people and relationships. Making that phone call or sending that letter you’ve been meaning to send. The holiday time is about reaching out and remembering to celebrate life and share it with those we love. Maybe for some it is about making new connections. And it also about renewing that relationship with ourselves and preparing for a new year ahead full of promise and hope.
Here are some simple things our family is doing this Holiday Season as we embrace minimalism into our new life:
1. Less stress, more fun. We are slowly paring down our holiday traditions to align more with our new way of thinking. For instance, we reduced the amount of lights and ornaments by half. The result was that the tree only had the very special ornaments, like the ones the kids made, or the ones that were gifts from family and friends. It made the tree look like a tree of memories. We gave away a lot of “clutter” that we no longer used and the holiday was a lot less stressful. We are still finding ways to simplify, and I will admit this process is not always easy, but do the best you can and don’t stress over it.
2.Do something out of the norm. The holidays are about celebrating life. Believe it or not, this year I was inspired to start working out. The reason is that I wanted to give my husband more time for himself. I figured if I dragged myself to the gym, he would follow, and now he is the one motivating me not to give up. Think of what you can give someone that can’t be wrapped.
3. Start a new tradition. Last year, I made an holiday calendar by filling an old starbucks advent calendar with little handwritten notes. These notes had simple things we could do each day as a family, like watch a movie, go for ice cream, or do a game night. Each day we open these and remind ourselves to enjoy little things this month as a family. I will refill the calendar again at the end of this season. You can start your own tradition with your family.
4. Honor someone with an organization you care about. This year, I decided to give a children’s hospital gown to the Starlight foundation. Starlight is a great organization, and they are currently collecting money for super hero gowns for kids. These gowns make the hospital stay more kid-friendly. I put the letter from the Starlight Foundation in the tree for my daughter Lilliana. When she was in the hospital, Lilliana was upset by wearing an adult sized gown in the ER, her biggest relief was when they gave her a kid-sized gown, so I did this in her honor. She was so happy to see this small act of kindness in the tree.
5.Plan special holiday meals or spend time together in the kitchen. Food is a unifying force, and many memories are tied to food. One of our favorite things in December is having hot chocolate with toast with the kids, as it reminds us of our childhood.
6.Focus on family and friends, and invite in new ones. We often take the time to call family and friends during the holidays, and this small act tells people we are thinking of them. It is a great chance to reconnect. Try to make a point to reach out and tell people you are thinking of them, or plan that visit you’ve been putting off. Say hello to the neighbor or invite a coworker for lunch.
7.Go for a drive. We love going for drives during the holidays. We recently went to a holiday event at our local zoo, and had fun seeing all of the zoo in a new light. It was fun to spend that time as a family.
8.Give toys to a local hospital or charity. Next year, we are setting a budget and allowing the kids to chose out toys for others. This makes them feel connected to other children in their community and also remember what the holidays are really about, giving and connecting.
9.Donate winter items. Giving is a sure way to celebrate the season by helping someone else out. Go through blankets, jackets, gloves, linens, and winter items you no longer need as they will help someone most right now. Also, find a local food bank and donate food for holiday meals.
10.Smile and be merry. My little toddler Emma taught me this one. Her smile can light up the worst day. Taking the time to be kind and hold the door for someone takes two seconds. Sometimes just giving a kind smile with an authentic, Thank you can make someone’s day easier.
It can be hard to undertake the journey to minimalism, but especially during the holidays. Over time, the holidays have become more and more commercialized. You may feel a bit like Scrooge saying no to Holiday things, but rest-assured it is a normal feeling. You don’t have to be Scrooge, or feel like him, but you have to remember to have balance during this time. Why is this important? Because the holidays are about celebration, not about accumulating more stuff. That being said, we did buy toys for the kids, but we opted for less toys of higher quality. We asked family not to spend loads of money on toys. Sure, some things are acceptable, but don’t go overboard and set a budget. Maybe next year we will forgo the toys altogether and plan a small trip.
Lastly, don’t be judgemental. Sure, minimalism is a journey, but be flexible in your expectations of others. In regards to yourself, keep that self-judgement at bay too, remember what matters is progress not perfection in your own journey. Next year, I think I will even start thinking about my budget a bit earlier and see how I can reduce even more. It takes time to change habits. All in all, the toys should not be the focus on the holidays. Focusing more on relationships, instead of things is key.