Why The Holidays Rarely Live Up To Expectations

Many of us get caught in the same cycle of joyfully anticipating the holiday season, only to have it come and go quickly, leaving us feeling underwhelmed. Luckily, there are a few simple things you can do to step out of the cycle and enjoy your holidays.

For many, the holiday season is a time many of us look forward to all year. Breaking out the decorations the moment Thanksgiving (or Halloween) is over, planning your annual holiday party, and whipping up your favorite family recipes. If you’re not in this joyful anticipation camp, we get it.

And yet, the holidays come and go in the blink of an eye, leaving many of us feeling overwhelmed, tired, and burnt out. If this sounds familiar, you’re not alone.

In fact, there are some specific reasons why this cycle happens including built-up emotional anticipation, our perception of time, and the pressures and expectations to have a “magical” holiday season. But the good news is that with a little bit of mindfulness, we can interrupt some of these patterns and set ourselves up for a more present (and hopefully magical) holiday season.

The Joy of Anticipation

Anticipation isn’t a negative concept. Quite the opposite, in fact. As Elizabeth Dunn, a professor in the Department of Psychology at the University of British Columbia, says, “anticipation is such a valuable source of pleasure.” 

Anticipation can also be a powerful force of motivation. Having something to look forward to offers hope and optimism for the future, making it easier to navigate the tougher moments in life. One study found that thinking about a positive upcoming event enhances activation in a part of the brain that is associated with a “higher level of well-being”.

Another study showed that “imagining future happiness in part serves the function of perceiving life as meaningful.” This positive anticipation stimulates the part of the brain where happiness and excitement originate, giving you a hit of dopamine, the “feel good” hormone.*

All in all, the joy, pleasure and motivation you get in planning and anticipating the holidays is very real, and important to our overall happiness.

So, if anticipation is actually beneficial for our well-being, why are we so often let down during and after the holidays?

The Problem With Great Expectations

Our expectations of the holidays have a direct influence on how much joy they do, or don’t, bring us. For many reasons (particularly well-curated ads and images on social media), most of us feel like the holidays need to be a magical time filled with perfectly-wrapped gifts and joyful families in matching pajamas.

Those expectations, combined with the accumulated anticipation, put so much pressure on those few days to be absolutely perfect. But inevitably, the reality of tricky family dynamics, travel delays, and burned cookies, all tend to mean we end up feeling like the whole period has been an anticlimax or a let down.

How to Actually Enjoy The Holidays

The good news is that there are things you can do to take off some of this pressure and enjoy the holidays, no matter how you choose to spend it. 

1 | Enjoy the anticipation

Let yourself soak up all the benefits of looking forward to any special traditions or recipes you have. But…

2 | Write an “anti-should” list to avoid unnecessary pressure and expectation

When we get swept up in a tide of anticipation, we often fall into the “should trap”. We feel like things should go a certain way or that we should feel or should act in a particular fashion to bring our holiday vision to life.

The difficulty we bump up against when our thoughts are linked to a feeling of necessity or obligation (“I should”, “I have to”, “I need to”, “I must”) is that it tends to create a sense of dread — the exact opposite of how we’d like to feel during the Holidays.

To disrupt this pattern, try making an “anti-should” list. Write out all the things you think you should be doing, how you should be feeling/behaving then reframe each thought individually with a more realistic statement. This should help soften the pressure so you’re expecting less of yourself and the Holidays, which means you’re far more likely to enjoy them.

For example:

  1. “I should be happy and joyous this time of year” → “It’s normal to have lots of different feelings this time of year”
  2. “I should be with family” → “I get to choose who I spend time with, doing what’s best for me”
  3. “I need to get everyone perfect gifts” → “I honor my budget and know price doesn’t equate to love”
  4. “I should go to all the parties” → “I can’t do it all, I’m allowed to say no”
  5. “I should spend all my time with loved ones → “It’s best for everyone if I take care of myself, even if that means taking some time away.”
  6. “I should make the perfect meal” → “I’m grateful to make new memories and enjoy a meal with loved ones, no matter what it looks like.”

3 | Keep up (most of) your self-care habits

It’s not realistic (or helpful) to think you’ll stick to all of your normal self-care routine during the holidays, but choose one or two supportive habits to maintain. A quick run, your Daily Calm, an evening bath– whatever helps you feel like you.

It can feel selfish to take time away on short trips, but think of it as an investment, helping you to show up more fully the rest of the day. Calm’s Daily Check-ins and Breathing exercises are quick and easy ways to stay connected to yourself! 

4 | Take mini time-outs

Make sure to take time to yourself to acknowledge any feelings that may come up. It’s normal to feel all of the things at this time of year. So much can happen in an hour, a minute, or even a loaded look when we’re with family and old friends.

Taking little time-outs to honor any feelings, or just rest and enjoy some quiet, is another “investment” to help you be more present the rest of the day (psst: the bathroom is a great place to take a minute to check-in, reset, calm anger, ease anxiety, or relax).

5 | Lean on your support network

If you find yourself feeling overwhelmed, lonely, or anxious, use your support network. A quick text or phone call to a trusted friend or loved one can help you feel seen, heard and understood (not always possible with the people you’re with). It doesn’t matter where the support comes from, just that you get it! 

6 | Carve out time for rest

It seems pretty obvious, but who doesn’t fall into the trap of zoning out in front of the tv well past our normal bedtimes over the holidays? Or exhaust yourself running from one activity to another to get everything done?

We forget that rest enables us to be present, think clearly, and be kind. So, commit to your rest.

Put on a cozy soundscape while unwinding with hot tea before bed. Try a magical winter Sleep Story for an extra special bedtime. Or give yourself the gift of a mid-day nap!

7 | Be flexible

Travel plans will go awry, recipes will go wrong, people will argue. If you can leave space for reality to be whatever it is, you can zoom out and stay connected to what’s most important to you (see your “should list” above). 

8 | Stay open to unexpected magic

The details you’ve drawn in your imagination aren’t the only way to have a beautiful holiday experience. Stay open to the possibility that unexpected magic lies in all of the unexpected moments. Let yourself stay present in order to soak up any of these magic moments this holiday season.