There’s just one more day until Christmas.
Most women have completed their holiday shopping, and most men are about to begin. The usual gift list stressing has begun: hoping that we got the right gift for our mother in law, how to hide the receipt from our spouse so it doesn’t ruin the surprise, and deciphering which item on the wish list for our child is something they will really want and not just something they wrote down because of a commercial. Regardless of our gift-giving stance, we all just want Christmas to be special for the ones we love, something they’ll remember fondly, secure in the knowledge that we love them.
The year my parents divorced was especially hard on our house. We often didn’t have money for peanut butter so Christmas presents were pretty much out of the question. An angelic older lady heard about our situation and asked what my brother and I wanted most, as she could only spare enough for one toy each. A Cabbage Patch Kid was all I wanted, as all my friends already had at least one of their own, but that year they were all the rage and shelves had long since been emptied of them. Christmas day arrived and I was given a small, handmade version of a Cabbage Patch Kid, made with love by that sweet angel. She made clothes for her and even stitched a little heart on its backside. Although I was only 7 at the time, and it wasn’t the “real” present I had asked for, I could see that someone had taken some time to create my dream doll. The next year better fortunes allowed an authentic Cabbage Patch Kid, but that handmade doll was still something special.
Looking back, I realize just how financially poor we must have been, but I never felt poor. My grandmother was a big believer in counting your blessings and any time things seemed tough she would have us name at least a few things we had that were good. She passed too soon to see that science would endorse her theory as being incredibly beneficial to your brain, and subsequently your whole life, but I think she would have approved.
It’s the most meaningful gift you can give yourself.
Appreciate the good, don’t mind the rest. Regardless of what your situation looks like, no matter how bleak or dismal it may appear, there is always something, no matter how small, that you can appreciate. It’s not about looking for the silver lining and ignoring the storm clouds, it’s understanding that it’s never just storm clouds. Nature doesn’t like anything to be completely black or completely white, there’s always a mix of the two swirling around. Sometimes the good is more evident, other times the bad, but there are always both. Realizing that you can appreciate the good in your life without having to eradicate anything that seems “less than” is one of the first steps to wisdom and contentment, and the physical benefits alone are enormous.
Literally, don’t mind the rest. Giving undue attention to anything you find negative, opening up old wounds, rehashing old stressors: all of these cause your brain to fire little messengers back and forth that say “XYZ = Feel Bad” and the more you do it, the more that gets reinforced. It’s like forging a path through a field, and the more times you walk it, the more defined the path becomes, and the easier it is to walk it in the future. You can’t stop yourself from occasionally sighing about things, but you don’t have to pave an expressway to misery for yourself.
Monkey See, Monkey Do. You don’t have to be a neuroscientist to know that you feel more optimistic and relaxed around people who seem the same, and the inverse holds true as well. Negativity breeds like a virus. You sit with coworkers who are constantly complaining about the job, the boss, the workplace, or life in general, and the “compassionate friend” in you nods in agreement even if you don’t feel negatively about it yourself. However, your “neuro-car” has just plowed right through a field to make a direct route between job and negativity, and a new route is ready to be reinforced. Don’t underestimate the power of mirroring, and choose your companions accordingly.
Experience follows thought. I thought this was nuts the first time I heard it, dismissing it as some new age fluff people say; the 2015 slogan for Tinkerbell. But, stop and ponder that for a moment. You can’t experience anything without thinking about it first. It’s one of the amazing perks of being human—imagination. With it you can imagine the best Christmas you’ve ever had, the first time you drove a car, or the moment you found out you were going to be a parent. You can also imagine the worst times in your life, the ordeal of losing a loved one, and the terror of losing your favorite job. Each holds a flavor of experience that makes our world colorful and rich, not just in imagined scenarios but also in what you think about things as they are unfolding. If you think your doll is a terrible imitation, you obviously won’t appreciate it. If all you see is the bare cupboard, you’re missing the opportunity to see the roof over your head or the good health that allowed you to wake up today. Life will still have situations that you must deal with, but your experience of them is entirely up to you.
This week, take a moment to give yourself the gift of love and appreciation. Appreciate whatever health you have that allowed you to read this. Notice the treasures of friendship around you. Love yourself for doing the best you can and love others for doing the same. Model the attitude of gratefulness for your children and those around you and relish when they mirror that back. The holiday season isn’t about gifts you can wrap with fancy paper and bows, but with love and understanding for those around you, including yourself.
Want to read more about the the science of happiness? Check out this article!
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