Focusing on the present

Photo: Getty Images
Photo: Getty Images
Happiness can be a bit elusive come Christmas time, writes Jan Aitken.

Jan Aitken
Jan Aitken

I wrote in my last column about re-jigging Christmas to make it less stressful, to bring back some of the fun and more enjoyable aspects. This week let’s take a look at how we can be ‘‘happier’’ during the Christmas/New Year period.

Many of us seem to think that Christmas, a holiday or time away from work will automatically make us happier, so it can be quite depressing and upsetting when a sudden surge of happiness doesn’t occur.

You see, happiness can be a bit elusive. I feel we are more likely to feel happy, long term, when we are content.

Feeling content is something that comes from within. It doesn’t rely on certain things happening, people behaving in particular way or you receiving a particular gift.

However, the good news is that there are some great research-backed ways for you to make the absolute best of the holidays. Dr Emma Seppala (author of The Happiness Track) outlines four ways to ensure Christmas and the holidays are connected, content and happy!

Here’s my take on them.


Many of us think about exercising portion control and not overdoing the booze during the holidays. What we forget about, however, is exercising control over the use of digital devices.

Research shows that when you really take time to be mindful and present during your positive experiences, your happiness and sense of contentment increase. Whether you’re getting together with family and friends or chilling on the sofa with your cat, savour the moment instead of focusing on your devices or looking for your selfie stick so you can upload a post to social media.

When you are constantly checking your devices, you lose the moment, you break the experience. You’re thinking of making the perfect smile for the camera but, ironically, you’ve stopped being fully present with the people and things that made you smile in the first place. There’s a good chance you’ll continue not being fully present as you keep checking for notifications and likes.

So be courageous, park your phone at the door and give yourself a set period of time without it, or better yet, turn it off and leave it at home. Be 100% in the experiences and with the people around you. Bask, revel, wallow and luxuriate in the present. Research shows that we are never happier than when we are fully present with what is going on right now.


Holidays, traditionally a time of companionship and connection, can be stressful. Unfortunately, stress reduces the ability to really connect with others compassionately. As a consequence, you may be with other people, but not forming meaningful connections. You might still feel lonely when with others, irritable or even sad.

Here’s how you can counter that: focus on what you can do for others. Instead of thinking about how you are feeling, think about what you can do to contribute. Whether it’s at a relative’s home or a soup kitchen, there are always ways in which you can make yourself helpful. Listening to an old aunt tell the same story over and over again, doing the dishes, or serving Christmas dinner at a local hall or church. Focusing on what you can do for others, shows you will not only be happier, but also healthier. Serving and helping others, with compassion, gives us a sense of meaning and purpose. What do those around you really want? They probably care less about gifts than about your love and you being fully present with them.


While Christmas is often a time of gift-exchange, the entire season, and the post-season sales, can make us focus on what we want, not necessarily on what we need. If you don’t get a gift you want, you can feel really let down and upset. But the problem is that focusing on what you want puts you in a black-mindset - you tend focus on what you don’t have. In short, you completely forget and discount what you have.

How can you counter that - recall the ways in which you are lucky and all of the things you already have. This will help remind you of the abundance in your life. Studies show that bringing to mind the things for which you feel grateful boosts your contentment and happiness, your relationships and your health.


Holidays are time to restore yourself, to relax and recuperate from the year. Yet some of us have gotten so used to working and to being available 24/7, that we don’t even really know what to do with ourselves when we are not there or checking our inbox.

Research shows that it’s only by taking time off that we return to work happy and productive.

How can you handle this? Take a deep breath and come back to the here and now. This is an opportunity to reconnect with the things you enjoy doing. Your holidays are a unique moment for you.

Think about what it is that you really want in this moment, is it really to sit hunched over a screen answering emails or obsessing about creating the perfect PowerPoint presentation? Time off is an opportunity to connect with yourself and to engage in activities that profoundly nourish you so you can start the new year refreshed.

Psychological detachment requires escaping all work-related interruptions, no matter how trivial they may be. It’s been shown that those who keep in contact with work while on holiday have higher levels of stress and work-family conflicts.

Research also shows that taking a walk in nature, cuddling loved ones, meditating, exercising or engaging in activities you love such as reading, hiking, fishing, knitting etc can profoundly reduce your stress levels and give you a renewed sense of perspective and happiness.

It’s known that the recuperative effects and emotional boost from a holiday seems to wear off a month or so after you return to work (possibly even more quickly in high stress jobs). So rather than one big holiday a year, several shorter ones might spread the restorative effects and give you something to plan for and look forward to.

Jan Aitken is a Dunedin-based life coach.

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