Holidays. I must admit – Christmas is always a bit of a tough time for me being away from my family and my home(s) (Canada, New York & New Jersey).
I always celebrate Christmas with my mom’s side of the family. We celebrate on the 24th – the European way. We’re meant to fast – but that never happens. My mom makes fish cutlets and potato salad, we all say “why did we eat so much”, we open presents in order from youngest to oldest (typically eating more cookies and chocolates), have Nat King Cole playing (with a record player!!) and then my uncle falls asleep on the couch while my aunt and step-dad have a whiskey (or two).
Christmas Day for us isn’t that much of a big deal, except for dinner when my mom makes roast duck, fried potatoes with caraway seed and braised cabbage.
It’s simple… but it’s magical.
But regardless of where I spend Christmas – whether I’m lucky enough to be home or here in beautiful Australia, I always need to be cognisant of managing my expectations over the week-or-so long break – because I LOVE Christmas.
SHOULD YOU KEEP READING?
If you always plan to have a
- Relaxing holiday where
- Everyone gets along and
- You achieve everything you want to get done
during the break… but this never seems to pan out, welcome my fellow dreamer, welcome.
So why do we get disappointed?
We’re adults, right? Shouldn’t we be logical enough to manage what seems like ‘childish’ emotions?
Here’s the problem – a lot of the experience of disappointment is chemically based within our brain’s predictive and reward mechanisms – predictive being the operative word here.
For example a study found that anticipation is actually the best part of an upcoming vacation!
Here’s the deal:
Our feelings during an event are not just about the event itself but also about how it measures up to our expectations during the anticipation phase. (Our brain has an amazing capacity to predict outcomes based on past experiences, learned knowledge and societal norms – and we can’t just erase these.)
So it’s like a dance between 2 moments in time – what we imagine in our mind during the expectation phase vs what the actual event feels like when it happens.
Holidays & the anticipation
When we anticipate a rewarding experience, our brain releases dopamine. This release isn’t just tied to the reward itself but also to the expectation of it. In other words, the mere anticipation of something good can realise dopamine just by thinking of it.
For example when you buy a present for someone and imagine how much they’re going to love it – it feels good right?
When the anticipated event occurs (like seeing them open the present), it’s compared with our original expectations – this is the delta (or the difference between prediction and reality). It’s kind of llike a math equation – the result can be positive (>0) or negative (<0).
If the actual experience of the event surpasses our expectations, the dopamine release can be higher than the initial anticipatory release. This makes us feel ecstatic or extremely satisfied – this is the ‘high’ we feel.
For example you predict they’re going to like the present but they end up LOVING IT – you feel even better.
But if they open the present and they say “thanks” and say but nothing more, the amount of dopamine released will be less than what our brain prepared us for. This is the ‘low’ we feel or the “this isn’t what I imagined” feeling.
So what can we do?
There are 2 things that I ALWAYS practice especially during the holidays:
1) Manage my expectations (hard to do because I get really, really excited about things). I allow myself to dream of great experiences BUT I add in a sprinkle of ‘that would be nice, but if it doesn’t happen exactly like that, it will still be nice’.
2) Remind myself, knowledge is power. For me, simply knowing that this is a normal physiological response takes some of the sting out of it.
But at the end of the day – it’s ok to be excited for life – especially the simple things – like our family dog Lenny enjoying the first winter snow.
Disappointment is a part of life – and we can’t avoid it – it’s simply a part of the ticket price to being… human.
Dr K xoxo
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