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Lincoln Journal Star: Some Simple Suggestions to Ease Holiday Stress

By Cory Matteson. This post originally appeared in Lincoln Journal Star on November 18, 2012.

Ten years ago, two psychology professors took a survey of 117 adults who recently had celebrated Christmas. The goal was to find what about the season brought them the most joy.

The answer wasn't a Polaroid i-Zone.

"Instead, individuals reported significantly lower well-being when spending and receiving were especially salient experiences," wrote the authors of the paper, "What Makes for a Merry Christmas?"

It wasn't that they were unhappy. About 75 percent of the people surveyed said they enjoyed Christmas 2001. But the authors, Tim Kasser and Kenneth Sheldon, wrote that their study found that "family and religion provided the greatest benefit to holiday well-being, whereas the secular, materialistic aspects of the holiday either contributed little to Christmas joy, or were associated with less happiness and more stress and unpleasant affect.”

Sheldon, a professor of psychology at the University of Missouri-Columbia, said he thinks the results still hold true, and that you might not need to read a scholarly paper to understand why.

“Just watch ‘A Charlie Brown Christmas,’” he said.

While a good portion of the country’s population is gearing up for the big sales at the big stores, more of which are opening their doors Thanksgiving night, there are some who say you can ease off the gas and get more enjoyment out of the season.

The holiday season is a big time of year for the Charlottesville, Va.,-based Center for a New American Dream, which advocates “non-material values, while upholding the spirit of the traditional American dream of life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness.”

For New Dream staff, it's a year-'round goal. Since she started working for the nonprofit, Wen Lee, director of online media and engagement with New Dream (as they prefer to be called, for short), said she created a list she and her friends could edit via Google Drive. It contained all the items they owned -- board games, a tent, an extra bike -- that they didn't mind others borrowing.

Lee said it makes things a little easier on her, which is the goal of New Dream's holiday campaign.

“Too often, the holidays seem to exhaust rather than uplift us,” reads the introduction to a 21-page document available at the group's website. “Do you sometimes feel trapped by the shopping, spending and frenzied preparations?”

That paragraph is from one of the group’s biggest and most popular publications of the year, its annual "Simplify the Holidays" guide. And for those who answered the question posed above in the affirmative, New Dream offers a wide range of suggestions to better balance the priorities of the season and of the family budget.

“It’s not about depriving yourself of things during the holiday season,” Lee said. “It’s about refocusing on things that really matter and reducing stress.”

New Dream suggests that people take time to think about what they want for themselves and their families at the holidays -- like spending time with the kids, building a deeper spiritual connection or even getting some sleep -- and planning the season around them.

With that in mind, New Dream offers ideas for simple gifts for children (a rope swing, old clothes for dressing up), grandparents (a family tree photo collage), charity (a coat drive) and others.

Last year, New Dream added an additional component to its seasonal suggestions, a pledge to do five of the things the group believes will help to simplify the holidays. In 2011, 1,225 people signed up for the pledge, Lee said. Since New Dream's "Simplify the Holidays" campaign went live on its website this week, 200 have signed up so far, she said.

“They’re more likely to do it, because they have more ownership over the choice,” Lee said.

The list includes 15 options, and some of them already might be part of your plans, such as hosting a white elephant gift party, or emailing -- not mailing -- a letter to family and friends.

You also can pledge to give a handmade gift, teach someone a skill, buy secondhand gifts, carol for friends or nursing home residents, prepare care packages for the homeless and -- though this may be unthinkable for some and standard operating procedure for others -- not buy anything on Black Friday.

Lee said the group’s goal isn’t to cripple the retail industry, which it won't. According to a survey from the National Retail Federation, 52.8 percent of Americans already have started to shop for presents, up slightly from last year.

"We're not trying to ruin the country’s economy," Lee said. "We want people to have richer lives and be more fulfilled in their relationships with people.”

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