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Giving gifts that promote wellbeing

December 31, 2015

One father’s holiday gift to himself – and his family

(As published in the Daily Hampshire Gazette, December 30, 2015)

The holiday season is upon us. For many of us, the stretch from Thanksgiving through New Years Day adds layers of complexity to the normal pace of family life. The sequence of festive social engagements, gift buying and consumption of seasonal food and drink can produce emotional, physical and financial stress alike.

It can also be an especially difficult stretch for those who are grieving, experiencing difficult family dynamics or struggling to make ends meet, especially when customs suggest it is a time for connection and celebration.

This seasonal pattern of physical and emotional distress ranges from inconvenient to quite serious; known among mental health and medical providers who routinely experience increased caseloads at this time of year.

It is tempting to explain this seasonal cycle as a product of a cultural tendency toward excess, as in elevating expectations and working really hard at celebrating, leaving us depleted, in many ways.

In this regard, our family antidote – keeping the holidays simple – tends to serve us well. Our kids, Zoe and Adam, who are 9 and 6 years old respectively, enjoy making gifts for each other and for my wife Lori and I. This year they even made and wrapped mini-gifts for each of their stuffed animals and dolls!

We all enjoy making and eating simple, healthy food. We spend Thanksgiving Day with family and the rest of the weekend at home. We go for a hike on Christmas Day. And, we set personal and family intentions for the New Year. These are some of the seasonal rituals that help us find connection and meaning during the holiday season.

And yet, keeping the holidays simple, I confess, is also driven by my own tendency toward excess. I set high expectations for myself and fill my days from early to late, often leaving me too tired, frayed or distracted to be fully present for celebrating, when holidays arrive. I suspect I am not alone in this regard.

Granted, there is certain inevitability to all of this – living in a fast-paced world, doing our best to meet the basic needs of our family and tending to relationships, in short – the everyday madness of being human.

Nonetheless, in an effort to both restore my own sense of balance and be more present with family during the holidays, I am warming up to the belief that celebration and self-care are not mutually exclusive, as I am prone to see them. Rather, both are expressions of wellbeing, which is best celebrated daily, not just at the holidays.

Making this shift feels a bit like trying to reverse the flow of a fast-moving river, or adding one more expectation to a life that already feels full. So, I am vowing to keep it simple, by expanding an existing practice, not adopting a new one.

At days end, I have a practice of asking Zoe and Adam: What was special about your day? Their spirits rise and they always have something positive to say – often lots to share. Yet, I generally don’t ask, let alone answer, this question myself. Instead, I tend to reflect on my day in terms of what I accomplished and subsequently what I still have left to accomplish on my to-do list, which reinforces my tendency to do rather than be. This is not an uplifting way to end, or start, the day.

So my holiday gift – to myself and my family – is a commitment to add two additional questions to our evening conversations: What’s one thing we can we celebrate today and what’s one way I took care of myself today?

This simple practice – the ritual of asking questions that promote wellbeing – is a gift that I hope will keep on giving each and every day, all year long.

John Engel of Florence is a consultant and director of the Healthy Men and Boys Network. He can be reached through his website

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