How would you characterize the holiday season? Stressful? Fun? Both? Look closely, one more time. Each part of this chilly holiday season—Thanksgiving, Christmas, New Year’s—focuses on a specific part of your life that can be transformed; this holiday season can actually act as a springboard to the New Year. Let’s see how.

Thanksgiving: Have Some Perspective

This is my favorite holiday of the year. There’s not too much stress, no gift-buying, lots of good food, football, and it’s typically not too cold to go outside and enjoy nature. So, what does any of this have to do with fixing your life?

While most people only think of the things I mentioned above, they almost completely gloss over the name of the day: Thanks-giving. It’s the day we’re supposed to slow down, sit back, and give thanks for everything we have and have had this past year. Thanksgiving is about the past.

A grateful heart leads to a contented heart, which leads to happiness. Always wanting more doesn’t lend itself well to happiness; in fact, it can lead to despair, envy, and often times hate. Studies have shown that showing gratitude actually makes you live longer, improves your sleep, elevates mood, and lowers cellular inflammation. Who wouldn’t want all that, and at no cost to your wallet? Really, this shouldn’t be done just once a year around the Thanksgiving table, but on a daily, even constant, basis. You can just think it, say it, or even better, journal your thanks so that you can read it on days when you need a reminder to be thankful.

Here’s a thought: If you’re reading this, that means you probably have a computer, a smartphone, or some kind of Internet access. How bad can your life be if you have that? There are people dying due to lack of clean water. There are children with no parents. There are people going to bed with empty stomachs, and here we sit, complaining about a slow Wi-Fi connection. We have “first world problems”. Be thankful, forget yourself for a moment, and spend time helping those that have true problems.

“One thing my pops always told me is you never count another man’s money. It’s what you’ve got and how you take care of it. And if I’m complaining about $44 million over 4 years then I’ve got other issues in my life.”

This was Step Curry’s response when asked how he felt about being the MVP of the NBA, but the forth highest paid player on his own team. You can imagine that the reporters expected Curry to respond with some bitterness but instead, he chose not to be petty about something that he could be thankful for instead.

“People say, ‘Oh the difficulty of making a movie.’ I say, ‘send your son to Iraq. That’s difficult.’ It’s just a movie… Your son shot in the face? That’s difficult. Making a movie is a luxury. It’s a gift…. Don’t get it twisted.”

This is how Denzel Washington responded to an actor who complained about acting being “so hard”.

Having perspective is the antidote to entitlement – something we like to point out in others, but fail to recognize in ourselves. Often, we feel that we “should” have a better job, more things, or more respect—as though those things are owed to us. And sure, while most of us work hard, it’s only when you have gratitude that you begin to realize how lucky you are and how blessed you’ve been. That leads to a level of humility that will protect you, not only from becoming entitled, but also to actually improve upon yourself.

We’ll get to that in our New Year’s section, but since we are talking about gifts, let’s talk about most people’s favorite holiday: Christmas.

Christmas: Be Present

Christmas is all about the present. No, that wasn’t a typo. Christmas is not about the presents, but about the present—now.

Having said that, I’d like to talk about one incredible epigenetic study. Scientists measured the mRNA levels of several antibodies (cells that fight infection) and inflammatory markers, once at baseline and once after subjects did one of two things:

  • Group 1 went out and bought something for themselves.
  • Group 2 bought something for someone else or did a service for someone else.

What they found was that the group that did something for themselves actually had less antibody production and increased inflammatory markers. The group that gave to others had an increased amount of antibodies to fight infection and decreased inflammatory markers. What this means is that the simple act of giving a gift or helping someone improved the giver’s health!

An interesting factor of Christmas is how it’s morphed into such a commercialized entity. We talk about the “reason for the season” and the “spirit of Christmas”, but those really have little to do with prettily wrapped presents. Back when you were in grade school, your English teacher likely asked you to identify the who, what, where, and why of a story. Today, we have often forgotten everything except the “whats” of Christmas, i.e. the gifts, vacation time, Christmas trees, and well-lit photo ops. Let’s be real: as much as we like to talk about it, we’ve forgotten the meaning, the reason, and the beautiful spirit of Christmas.

The most important lesson we can learn from Christmas is the present, the now. If you’re not engaged in the what, who, why, where, how you are right now, you can’t appreciate what you’re experiencing. And if you can’t experience what you have right now, you’ll have a hard time being grateful for having had the experience. You’ll never realize what you missed.

It’s scary—the average adult attention span is now down to 7 seconds, probably due to our plugged-in society. We jump from one thing to the next, never taking the time to stay in the moment and savor it. You know it’s true.

And why does any of this matter? When your mind is not where your body is, there is a serious drop off not only in performance but in the ability to appreciate it. Many people are proud of their multi-tasking abilities, but the truth is that most actually can’t. Studies have shown that when drivers are asked to talk and drive at the same time, their driving efficiency drops by 37%. Your brain is like a computer—actually it is a computer—and when you have too many “programs” running, it’ll inevitably slow down.

Being present, being in the moment, appreciating life, etc. Those are all very vague ideas that probably will be pushed aside by many people reading this, but here are a few specific examples of why they matter.

Your wife is talking to you as you read an article on your smartphone. You’re not paying attention to her, or you’re “multitasking”. You are not being present. Your wife doesn’t feel respected. Later on, when you’re having a serious conversation you’re actually engaged in, you can’t remember what she said, which makes her feel even more unimportant.

Was that article more important than your relationship with your wife? Of course not. So why do we do it? Put down the smartphone, turn towards the love of your life, and actually listen.

Your kid wants to play with you, but you can’t because you have to prepare for a big meeting the next day. Your thoughts, and what you place importance on is in the future: your job, career, financial success. Unfortunately, all these things can never be attained. There will always be an unending supply of ladders to climb and money to be made, but you only have right now—right now. Do you really want to get your raise, at the cost of looking at your child and not knowing what their favorite food is, what their favorite color is, who their friends are, what they’re afraid of, and what their goals are?

If this is you, you’re lucky that you even get to make that kind of choice. Many don’t have the opportunity. Being present saves you from regret, which, I may remind you, is the opposite of gratitude.

New Year’s Eve and Day: Make a Conscious Choice For Better

This holiday is a bit different because it spans two days and two occasions. New Year’s Eve is for looking back and celebrating the past, while New Year’s Day is about launching into the next chapter of your life, often signified by writing New Year’s resolutions. The great thing about New Year’s Eve and Day is that it ties it all together. Here’s what I mean:

First, you look back at what happened in the past year, hopefully with a grateful heart. If you’re grateful but also realistic, you’ll find areas you’d like to improve in. If you feel entitled, you’ll probably just feel bitter which doesn’t lead to growth, success, or progress. New Year’s is the time to think about the future.

While this article has been mostly positive and upbeat, there’s something important to be said about failures and other unhappy occurrences that happen to all of us over the course of a year. If you look at a failure as a gift, you can be empowered to turn it around. The hardship you experience post-failure can be used to give you the power to make the changes that will prevent the same failure from occurring again.

Some call it “hitting rock bottom” or getting a “wake up call”, but in either case, failure becomes the turning point. It becomes the moment that you decide to make a change for the better and mean it. Over 2/3 of New Year’s resolutions are forgotten or abandoned within six weeks. Think of the typical stop smoking, eat better, save money, or work out more resolutions—how many resolutions like these can you recall giving up on?.

And what’s the reason for our quick failure? Let’s go back to who, what, where, and why. The most important question you should answer is almost always “why”. If you have a good “why”, you’re more likely to commit to seeing your resolution succeed. Motivation, such as wanting six-pack abs, or fitting into a bikini, are really weak motivators. Wanting to feel good, being alive for your kids, going on a backpacking trip with your friends are much stronger “whys” and much more likely to help you reach your goals. Actually being present and immersed in the pain and hardship of embarrassment or failure can help fuel your turnaround. I can tell you countless weight loss and health recovery stories that all started with something incredibly embarrassing, that compelled the individual to change for the better.

One great example is Jacqueline Adan. Look her up on the Internet. She was at Disneyland when she got stuck in a turnstile. They had to get Disney employees to help extract her. When freed, she excused herself and went to the bathroom. What do you think she did in there? She cried. She was so humiliated. After that accident, she decided that she would never find herself in that situation again. The next morning she went to her doctor’s office and weighed herself. She weighed in at 510 pounds. She was shocked, but not defeated. She took the energy and power of that incredibly embarrassing moment to drive her to lose 350 pounds! And really, it’s not the weight that she lost, but the life that she gained. Now, she tells her story to everyone and anyone who will listen. She’s no longer embarrassed but empowered to help others make the change to return to their uniquely purposeful lives. She was grateful for the chance to change her life, she was present in the moment to really feel what happened to her at Disneyland, and she made a choice to change.

There’s one exercise I’d like to share with you, taken from Charles Dickens’ A Christmas Story but best applied to the New Year. It’s an exercise that self-help guru Tony Robbins has his attendees do with him at his events, and it’s really quite powerful. It’s called “The Dickens Process”. Before we get to that, though, we should take a moment to talk about opportunity costs. Yup, we’re shifting into an economics lesson, but it’ll be quick!

Opportunity costs are when you decide to invest time, energy, or money into a situation, thus limiting your options down the road. Suppose you have $10,000 and hear about a real estate deal that sounds really good but requires an $8,000 upfront investment. If you take it, you’ll only have $2,000 left for any other deals that come up afterward, even if it’s a much better one. You’re limited by the investment you made in the real estate deal. This concept also applies to how you spend your time and energy, which also ties into being present as we talked about earlier in this article.

So, back to the Dickens Process. Robbins asks the audience to think about their own beliefs, especially their negative self-beliefs. Then, he asks them to calculate what those beliefs have cost them in the past, present, and more importantly what they will cost you in the future.

For example, let’s say that your negative self-belief is that you’ve always believed you’re not smart. What has that belief cost you?

  1. PAST: Did you not try hard in school, thus getting poor grades, which hurt your self-esteem, which changed people’s perceptions of you and relationships with you? Did the lower grades hurt your chances of getting into a better college and consequently, your job opportunities?
  2. PRESENT: Did you not apply for a promotion you were qualified for? Did you decide not to try and tell that joke that you knew would get a laugh at dinner last night? At today’s meeting, did you not answer even though you knew, and thus perpetuate the perception in others that you’re not smart?
  3. FUTURE: What opportunities are you going to let slip by? What jobs, friendships, relationships, and rewards are you going to miss out on? What limits are you setting for yourself? What ceilings have you set for yourself?

That is just one common example, but take some time to think through the following:

  • I can’t lose weight.
  • I can’t get out of debt.
  • I’ll never get married.
  • I can’t forgive that person for what they did.
  • I can’t be forgiven for what I did.

What have these thoughts cost you in the past, the present, and what will they cost you in your future?

“Watch your thoughts; for they become words.
Watch your words; for they become actions.
Watch your actions; for they become habits.
Watch your habits; for they become character.
Watch your character for it will become your destiny.”
 

There’s a lot here to digest, especially with all the real food we’ll be eating during the holidays. So here’s the whole article boiled down to some mantras to help you remember the main points:

  1. On Thanksgiving, give thanks. Train your perspective into being a grateful one.
  2. On Christmas don’t think about the presents. Be present.
  3. On New Year’s, look at what your thoughts cost you. Change your thoughts to change your life.

One last thing: These suggestions shouldn’t be saved just for the holidays, but should and must be used every single day. Every night is an ending, but more importantly, every morning is a new chance to change your world for the better

So, take it.


About the Author

Harvey Hahn, MD, FACC

Dr. Hahn graduated from Loma Linda University in 1994. He is currently the director of the Cardiovascular Fellowship Training Program at the Kettering Medical Center in Kettering Ohio.

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