Three practices that will increase your family’s joy this holiday season

Written by Nicole Zasowski
Published on November 29, 2022

The holidays are supposed to be “the season of joy,” but conversations with parents this time of year are often characterized more by stress than celebration. Why? To begin, our brains are little help to us when it comes to experiencing joy. Left on neutral, the brain leans negative. There are many reasons for this. First is a phenomenon called the “hedonic treadmill,” which means that our brains rapidly adapt to joy. We experience a moment of thrill and then the glitter quickly begins to flake off. Second, negative input is simply stickier in our brains than positive input. And third, we tend to tell our joy how it can be improved upon. Even the thrill of the most tender moments and fantastical memories won’t last long before we start contemplating what would have made it better. This is our starting place when it comes to experiencing joy. 

Layer on the pressure to create special family memories, select the perfect gifts, and find time for all the traditions, and it becomes clear we need a new way. But there’s hope! Contrary to what many of us are taught to believe, celebration is not simply a reward for an accomplishment, a reaction to good news, or joy we feel as the result of a shift in our circumstances. At its best, celebration is a rhythm we practice that connects us to God, others, and our own emotional experience. And it allows us to experience more joy in the lives we are already living. Here are three simple practices that will help us do just that…

Savor ordinary moments

The practice of savoring helps us celebrate the moments our brains would be tempted to dismiss as unimportant and unworthy of our attention. The truth is, there is so much more joy that can be squeezed from our ordinary moments than we typically believe. So how do we practice savoring? Whether in the recent past or in the present, pick one small moment from your day and simply ask your five traditional senses what you’re going to remember. What do you see? What do you hear? What do you smell? What do you taste? And what do you feel? This will help you celebrate the life you’re living so that you can recall it later. The fringe benefit is that this exercise also reduces anxiety as it keeps our brains in the present, where we are actually empowered to make choices.

Give thanks 

We often use the words “gratitude” and “thanksgiving” interchangeably. However, there is a key difference between the two. Thanksgiving is the outward expression of the gratitude that we feel. Research is clear that gratitude does increase our joy. It helps us notice and name what is good in our lives. But did you know that practicing thanksgiving—actually expressing the gratitude we feel to a person or to God—doubles the joy we would experience, had we simply felt grateful? If you notice something, say something! Not only will it spread joy to others, but it will also double the joy you experience in that moment of gratitude.

Receive kindness 

It might require some courage to own our mistakes and notice the ways in which we need to grow, but most of us grossly underestimate the courage required to absorb our belovedness and receive love and care from God and others without objection. Practice receiving the gift of presence of others, words of affirmation, or even gifts without deflecting or dismissing the kindness. When you are the recipient of verbal affirmation, a generous act of service, or a gift, simply say: “Thank you! I receive it!” Modeling both practices of generosity and receiving will set a foundation of joy for our families this holiday season.

As parents, we don’t need more tasks to put on our holiday to-do lists. We don’t need more pressure to make the season more special. What we need are simple practices that will help us experience more joy in the brutal and beautiful lives we already have. In whatever circumstances you might be facing, whether in sorrow, in celebration, or in some combination of the two, I pray you savor what is good, express your gratitude with thanksgiving, and receive kindness. And may the gifts you receive  reflect the only gift that can truly bring joy to the world—the person and presence of Jesus Christ.

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Nicole Zasowski

Nicole Zasowski is a licensed marriage and family therapist and author of WhatIf It’s Wonderful? and From Lost to Found. She lives in Connecticut with her husband and three young children. Nicole would love to connect with you on her website: where you can download a free guide to help you navigate your own “What if…?” questions.

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