Around the holidays, we hear songs about joy—whether that’s “joy to the world,” or “tidings of comfort and joy.”
But what is joy, and where can we find it these days?
Psychologists define joy as a positive emotion in response to something good in life, often something that feels like an unexpected blessing. With family gatherings, vacation days, and the general festivity of the season, this time of year is ripe for moments of joy.
We also associate the holidays with presents—but with inflation on many people’s minds, there might not be as many gifts this season as there were in past ones. And many of us experience feelings of grief and loneliness during this time.
Even so, there are ways to find joy that don’t cost a dime, and can perhaps help us to find a way through bad feelings. As a recent study found, appreciating our everyday experiences may be an important pathway to meaning in life.
However you feel about the season in general, we hope you’ll be able to find small moments of joy in your everyday life as the year comes to a close. We surveyed our staff and friends of Greater Good about their simple holiday joys, and we hope their stories spark some ideas for you.
See other people’s joy
I love watching other people being happy during the holidays. Slowing down to cook a special meal. Walking out of a toy store with a big box and quietly smiling. Watching with pleasure while a friend opens their gift. Their faces touched with love while sitting with family around a table. It’s all good! I believe the Dalai Lama once said something like this: “If you can be happy that others are happy, then you can always be happy, since there is always someone somewhere who is happy!” —Rick Hanson
Send a loving text
One of my favorite—and simplest, small-effort, cost-free—activities that provides a great deal of happiness is texting people in my life and letting them know how much they mean to me or that I’m thinking of them or how grateful I am for their friendship or support. It’s so easy to do and it makes them (and me) SO happy—far exceeding the effort that this simple exercise takes. —Sonja Lyubomirsky
Delight in the senses
During a recent dinnertime discussion, we talked about the sensual dimension of the holidays. My partner talked about the scent of the tree in our house; my ex-wife remembered a moment when we were vacationing in Switzerland over Christmas, looking out over a snowy valley surrounded by mountains with the lights of the cute Swiss cottages creating a sense of human comfort in what would have otherwise been a very forbidding landscape. Our teenage son and I talked about the taste and smell of holiday foods: chestnuts, pumpkin pie, cookies, honey-glazed ham, eggnog, and more. The holidays are invitations to appreciate and savor such small, animal sensations, especially with the people we love. —Jeremy Adam Smith
Go on playful dates
The holiday season is the PERFECT time to create playful, cheerful, and cozy dates with new people. Forget about boring, generic date ideas: Invite your new crush to check out the best decorations in town, go on a quest to find the best mulled wine and hot chocolate, sing carols, kiss under the mistletoe, and spread cheers. Dress up like an elf for your holiday-themed Tinder picture—you’ll be guaranteed to put smiles on faces! “I had a terrible time eating candy cane and signing with strangers with that cute Santa-hatted lady from the dating app”—said no one, ever. —Marie Thouin
Have the beach to yourself
Our favorite family tradition involves a Christmas day jaunt at a beach outside of Boston. The beach is deserted because, well, most people would rather be inside on a chilly New England winter day. My three boys, husband, and I bundle up and bring the kite if it’s windy. We’ll walk along the water’s edge, my boys flying the kite, chasing seagulls, or finding uninhabited shells. And when we’re too cold to stand it any longer, we head back to our car and blast the heat as we get excited for a hot cup of cocoa at home. —Yael Schonbrun
One of things I most appreciate about this time of year is the sense that society takes a moment to slow down. Work slows down, email slows down, and it is understood that gathering with loved ones takes precedence over our work lives. We need this time—as individuals and as a society—for the restorative processes that are so key to health. So whoever you are gathering with, whatever you are eating (pozole and turkey for us this year!), I hope we all enjoy a little restorative downtime during this time of year! —Belinda Campos
My favorite holiday ritual comes at the end of the family Christmas party when we all sit down and sing. We belt out Christmas songs but also share Irish folk songs and maybe Taylor Swift songs, too. How’s it sound? Let’s just say we are not the Jacksons 5, but it’s not about the quality of the voices but how the singing makes us feel! Singing is an embodied experience; we resonate with sound. And we are in sync with other singers physically and emotionally, sharing messages of love, peace, and heartbreak. Try it! There are “karaoke carols” that make it easy to sing along!” —Leif Hass
Keep a tradition going
My college roommate and I have been watching Love, Actually for the past 16 years together. Although she’ll be in London this time around, we will FaceTime to ensure the tradition keeps going. We know it like the back of our hands but there’s nothing better than carving out time and holding traditions you love with those you care about during the holidays! (Oh, and we have snacks too, of course!) —Riana Elyse Anderson
Visit a Christmas market
I love and appreciate Christmas markets so much. My kids love it and enjoy it. Here in Dubai, there are plenty of them and it reminds me of the time when I was in Germany doing my Ph.D. Christmas markets bring a lot of positive emotions, friends and family sit together and simply have fun, enjoy a hotdog sandwich, listen to Christmas songs (which is one more thing I am grateful for now!), and enjoy the beautiful weather. I also enjoy just watching and being around the beautiful Christmas decorations. —Yomna Sameer
Gather around the fire
I don’t really treat the holidays as anything more than a prime to socialize more. In winter, this means inviting sets of characters to fire-pit gatherings late into the night. I try to mesh characters from different worlds who haven’t met. And I take great joy in watching those characters form their own friendships, cementing stronger, intricate network webs. I never buy holiday cards. I only send letters—on paper, napkins, the back of junk mail envelopes. I want my loved ones to know I was thinking of them and I wrote it on whatever the hell happened to be nearby. —Todd Kashdan
Reconnect with old friends
When I travel to my hometown over the holidays, I look forward to reconnecting in person with friends from my growing-up years. It’s comforting to spend time with people who see the through-line from who I was as a teen to who I am now. Around these friends, it’s easy to get past the artifice that’s part of many everyday encounters. We don’t see each other through the lens of our careers or accomplishments—we see who we’ve always been outside of those things. Over the years, we’ve encouraged each other to stick out tough times, to remember what’s good about ourselves, to take part in activism that matters. Most importantly, we laugh so hard that we cry. (Well, at least some of us.) —Elizabeth Svoboda
Play family bingo
In the hustle and bustle of the holidays, it’s easy to get carried away with stacking the family calendar with events and forgetting to live in the little moments of joy and connection. One thing our family learned during lockdown was that there are so many cost-free, joyful activities that can be done right from home! This holiday season, to prioritize presence over presents, we created a “Holiday Bingo: Cozy Family Edition” game where we each added something on our family BINGO card that we want to do together. From baking cookies to having a family dance party in the living room, there’s something for everyone. If you want to cultivate cozy family bonding time this holiday, feel free to grab a Holiday Bingo card here! —Rebecca Branstetter
Share memories together
During these early winter weeks, my family often takes time to look through old photo albums together—remembrances of family adventures to Lake Tahoe and get-togethers with extended family members, some of whom have passed years ago. I especially love to share these stories with my young son, who reminds me how these are the new good old days now, too. As a little girl, I was my mother’s wanna-be sous chef as she baked traditional bread early in the morning for our honey-laden breakfast feast. Now, I savor the image of my son standing in the same spot at the kitchen counter with excess flour dusted on his sleeves while my mother is standing at the oven—tending to the bread as it’s baking to ensure that it’s just the right shade of golden-brown color. I’ve got the jar of honey in hand to drizzle over the bread as we—three generations—share the first delicious bites in our warm kitchen. This simple joy is a profound feeling of being home. —Maryam Abdullah