As the holiday season approaches, do you feel like saying “Ho, ho, ho” or “Bah humbug?”

“Holidays are supposed to be a time of joy and celebration,” stated an article on the website healthline, “but for many people they are anything but. The stress and anxiety of the holiday season may cause even those who are usually content to experience loneliness and a lack of fulfillment.”

We understand that a man who recently lost his wife of fifty years is probably going to have a rough holiday season no matter what he does, but psychologist John Grohol summarized recent research on happiness by contending, “You control about half your happiness level. Although the exact level will vary from individual to individual, it appears that up to about 50 percent of our happiness levels are preset by genetics or our environment but that about 50 percent of our happiness is within our power to raise or lower.”

If Grohol is right, then there are things we can intentionally do to make the upcoming holidays happier. I’ll begin with what more of the research on happiness says.

A Harvard Grant Study, which followed 268 male Harvard undergraduates for 75 years, came to the following conclusions:

  • The only thing that matters in life is relationships. A man could have a successful career, money and good physical health, but without supportive, loving relationships, he wouldn’t be happy.
  • Joy is connection. The more areas in your life you can make connection, the better. The conclusion of the study, not in a medical but in a psychological sense, is that connection is the whole shooting match.
  • Challenges and the perspective they give you can make you happier. The journey from immaturity to maturity is a sort of movement from narcissism to connection, and a big part of this shift has to do with the way we deal with challenges. The secret is replacing narcissism, a single-minded focus on one’s own emotional oscillations and perceived problems, with mature coping defenses. Mother Teresa had a perfectly terrible childhood, and her inner spiritual life was very painful, but she had a highly successful life by caring about other people.
  • Grohol added another insight to the Harvard Grant Study:

Focus on experiences, not stuff. People who spend their time and money on doing things together — whether it be taking a vacation to someplace other than home or going on an all-day outing to the local zoo — report higher levels of happiness. So ditch buying so much stuff for yourself or your kids — you’re only buying artificial, temporary happiness.

And he emphasized the Harvard Grant Study’s point that relationships are what really matter by saying, “Relationships are a key factor in long-term happiness. Research has shown that strong social connections with others are important to our own happiness. The more of these you have, generally, the happier you will be.”

The research hasn’t told us anything we didn’t already know. The best things in life are free—i.e. in terms of money—but they require a large investment of time and energy. It’s a matter of being intentional, slowing down and doing what we already know. It’s like what the boy said to his father who wasn’t home much, because he worked long hours to provide a happy life for his family. The boy said, “Dad, I want your presence, not your presents.”

Years ago, when I asked my step granddaughter what she wanted for Christmas, she replied, “Grandpa, let’s order a pizza and watch a playoff football game together. Just you and me.”

It’s really up to us. We can go with the cultural flow which tries to market the illusion that every kiss begins with a more-than-I-can-afford diamond ring from Kay. The lights and presents do, I admit, induce a temporary high, but the lights will come down, and we will return the expensive gift that the nephew didn’t really want or need, and we will face January without the Bears in the playoffs.

It’s the relationships that matter, not the stuff. We need each other’s presence more than we need their presents.

Tom Holmes has worked in Forest Park since 1982 as a pastor and as a writer. He is grateful that his children grew up in this town and finds inspiration in the personal relationships he has developed with so many.