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How Happiness Battles the Holiday Blues

family laughs while sledding

Knowing what happiness is can help you get there faster.

by John Crawford, VA Research Communications
Monday, December 16, 2013

The holiday season offers plenty of opportunities for joy, but for some, the hustle and bustle of the season isn’t cause for celebration. For many, it’s a source of loneliness, sadness and grief. Just ask Dr. Ron Pekala, biofeedback director and coordinator for research and development at the Coatesville VA Medical Center in Pennsylvania. “People who are prone to depression or have had trauma have expectations about the holidays,” says Pekala. “They think things should be a certain way and when they’re not, it affects them.”

Pekala is concerned about how the holiday blues affect his patients. Studies have shown some 10 to 30 million Americans suffer from at least mild symptoms of depression during the holiday season.

What sets Pekala apart is that he’s not just focusing on depression. Rather, he’s interested in helping his patients find happiness.

“People can become less depressed but still not be happy. There are two sides at play here—positive and negative. These emotions come from different parts of the brain,” says Pekala. “Maybe you don’t have family around during the holidays. We all have tragedies in our lives, but that doesn’t mean you can’t find happiness.”

If you understand happiness and what it takes to be happy, says Pekala, then you can load the dice in your favor.

 The development of achievable goals can lead to feelings of…increased self-esteem. 

Quiet time…a remedy for the holiday blues.

It all starts with social interaction, which is what the holidays are about, says Pekala. Relatives from across the country get together and reminisce. Long lost cousins, neighbors and coworkers gather at parties. People talk. They laugh. That laughter generates endorphin release and a feeling of well-being. All these things make a difference in developing happiness and increasing self-esteem, according to Pekala. “It’s science,” he says.

Pekala warns not to hit too many holiday parties though. Science also supports quiet time as a remedy for the holiday blues. We live in a frenetic culture, particularly so during the holidays. There’s shopping to do, miles to travel and turkeys to cook. It's fight or flight most of the time and this leads to exhaustion. Again, science plays a role. The body’s parasympathetic nerve system works to calm you down. Sit down and read a book, take a walk, or listen to music and let the world wait a while.

And, though it might not fit the image of pecan pies and egg nog, there is always good old aerobic exercise if you want to get a jump on your New Year’s resolution. Studies suggest exercise is as effective as Prozac or other anti-depressants on mild-depression. A short stint of cardiovascular stimulation will leave you feeling positive after you cool down. Research has shown that aerobic exercise can lead to new neuron growth, effectively allowing you to remodel your brain with each step on the treadmill. Just make sure you keep the routine up for at least 90 days. Research has shown habits tend to stick better after three consecutive months.

Have something positive to look forward to.

Along with helping your mind and your body, a good exercise program can also provide feelings of success and achievement. The development of achievable goals, not just in the gym, but in all walks of life, can lead to feelings of success, competence and increased self-esteem.

Whatever you do to stay happy, the important thing is to have something positive to look forward to every day. “We need hope,” says Pekala. “We need positive events to look forward to and that means finding ways to make yourself happy. Developing such positive expectations and perceptions are very important in cultivating happiness and reducing depression.”

Pekala asks: “Are you going to change the world or are you going to change your perception of the world? Which is easier?”