Holidays should be about joy. And family. And cozy time by the fire and good food. But for most of us this is not the case. Or at least it is not the whole story.

December is also the most stressful month for many of us. Between 14 and 20 percent of Americans get the “winter blues” or Seasonal Affective Disorder (SAD) each year. Part of this is natural. The days are shorter. People stay inside more. We get less natural vitamin D. Our natural rhythms slow down.

And yet we still work long hours. And our kids still have full days of school. And afterschool activities, and tests, and more. Plus, Christmas and other holidays can bring so much pressure and stress of their own.

As we leave the holidays behind and prepare to welcome a new year, here are some tips for a healthier, happier 2022.

First, give yourself a break

If December flew by in a wind of chaos, consider starting 2022 with rest. No plans. No agenda. No new gym memberships and fad diets. Slow down. Get cozy. Put on your most comfortable clothes. Take pleasure in the simple things in your life.

The Danes and Norwegians even have a word for this: hygge. It refers to the feeling of contentment or well-being that comes from slowing down and appreciating what we have. This time of year, that can mean warm coffee and extra blankets. Or memories of grandma’s cooking and the simplicity of childhood. It’s great to share cozy time with friends and family. But it can be even better to enjoy it alone.

Next, take stock

2021 was tough! Unless you live under a big rock or in some impervious bubble of equanimity, the world around you was unusually stressful this year. That takes a toll. Pretty much all of us are feeling a little extra worn down right now.

What were some particularly difficult moments or periods for you in 2021? For me, the January 6th insurrection at the U.S. Capitol was pretty scary. But it was, in a way, at a distance. More present for me this year was starting my toddler in daycare. While this was good in a lot of ways, it also meant an average of 2 nasty viruses each month. One month it was norovirus, which we managed to spread to all four of our kiddo’s grandparents. Another month, it was a sinus infection that hit my wife hard. No fun.

We also bought a house. In this market, that is a small miracle in itself. But it has also been very stressful. From pulling all of the money out of all of the corners of our known universe to worrying about the home inspection and needed repairs to come and moving and getting settled in the middle of a heatwave and pandemic, it has been crazy. We in Western Montana also lived through one of the worst wildfire smoke seasons of our lives. It seemed like the air was unhealthy from mid-July through early September. This, with unseasonable heat and an often-sick toddler, made things rough in our home.

So it makes sense that I look back at this year as one of my toughest yet. And I can hope that 2022 is better. Kids develop immunity to things over time. We’re not buying another house any time soon. At least I can be somewhat confident that these aspects will be easier.

Third, be grateful

In the midst of the pandemic, I have been and continue to be most grateful that none of our close family members have had COVID-19. My wife lost an uncle suddenly recently, which was hard on all of us. Especially difficult was the fact that she couldn’t travel to be with family for the funeral.

But given the big scheme of things, I think we’ve faired well. We’ve been very lucky. And for that we are grateful.

People talk a lot about getting back to normal somehow after the pandemic. But what about the things we’ve changed that have been good? What in your life has been better these last couple years? Perhaps it has just been seeing how strong you really are, or solidifying some friendships through these hard times.

Finally, think ahead

We never know what the future will bring us. None of us expected 2020 to bring us a global pandemic. None of us knew we’d be seeing the fourth (or fifth?) wave as we head into 2022.

But we have the power to respond to whatever comes next. Will we rise up, together with family, friends, and community? Will we join in making the year better, even if just for ourselves and those close to us? Can we envision positive change in our lives and the world around us?

One of the most inspirational short books I’ve ever read was Viktor E. Frankl’s Man’s Search for Meaning (1946). In it, he document’s his life in a Nazi concentration camp during World War II. What he witnessed then was profound. Simply put, he found that prisoners who found meaning and hope in life, despite their dire circumstances, were far more likely to survive and later thrive. Some had been doctors and longed to get back to helping people. Others had children they hoped to be reunited with.

Frankl later coined the term “Logotherapy” for a form of treatment in which people are directed to find a purpose in life and to imaginatively immerse themselves in that purpose. That purpose must be something that can be with you for all of life: a deep love of cooking and good food, helping the elderly or children, studying philosophy, or even walking or hiking. Even if there are obstacles, small or large, right now, you can imagine ways of working around them and living your purpose.

As we move into 2022, know that a new year doesn’t erase the difficult past. We’ll still be in a pandemic. The climate crisis still needs collective work. There is much work to do in the world. But each of us can do a part. And committing ourselves to helping others, near and far, in small ways and large, is perhaps the very best way to move beyond the stress of the season.


Default Alt Tag for this pageJustin Whitaker, Ph.D., holds a doctorate in Buddhist ethics from the University of London. He has given lectures, and taught Buddhist studies and Philosophy at Oxford University, the University of Hong Kong, the University of Montana, and at Antioch University’s intensive study-abroad program in India. A certified meditation teacher, he is a regular contributor to, and Senior Correspondent for Buddhistdoor Global. He lives in Missoula with his family.