Ask Dr. Gramma Karen: Keeping Joy in the Holidays During the Pandemic

family at thanksgiving dinner

My husband, Gary, a history and philosophy aficionado, begins his day by reading the email meditations posted on Daily Stoic, Ancient Wisdom for Everyday Life. Stoicism, originated by the early Greeks, is a tool in the pursuit of self-mastery, perseverance, and wisdom: something one uses to live a great life. Sometimes he shares posts with me, ones that he knows will be of interest, such as “How to Make Joy.”

Excerpts include:

Joy is good. Who doesn’t like joy?

The question is where does it come from—is it accidental or is it something you pursue? The Stoics would say that it’s neither. To Marcus Aurelius, Roman emperor, 161 – 180 A.D., joy was something you did. It was a process.

Joy means … not being distracted by false pleasures and passions—not making the mistake of thinking that joy is success or money or sex. No, joy is doing good for others … It means you can make it and have it any time you like … Joy lies in human actions. Actions you can take right now.

I like the way Marcus Aurelius’s approach to joy makes it accessible and actionable. For me, it brings to mind poet and author Mary O’Connor’s timeless and inspiring book, Life Is Full of Sweet Spots: An Exploration of Joy. Based on Mary’s expertise regarding the topic of joy, I asked her to share her advice on how we can keep joy in this holiday season, a time many traditional gatherings with family and friends will be cancelled or curtailed because of Covid-19.

Mary O’Connor Discusses Keeping Joy in the Holiday Season

Mary O’Connor

How do we keep joy in this holiday season, a time when Covid-19 will curtail our ability to enjoy traditional gatherings of family and friends? It’s a tall order, but by no means one that can’t be met.

Despite its elusiveness, joy can be freely found. It is there, ready for both the asking and the taking, tucked in places all around us—in the earth, the sea and sky, our bodies, minds and souls. I like to call these sweet spots, places that can invigorate, lift our spirits, delight and bring us pleasure.

Philosophers and psychologists before us have said that finding joy is a process, a building of moments, one moment at a time. There is much truth in this. So, as we look for ways to turn this Covid-tarnished holiday into one to be remembered for its core of joy, think both in terms of sweet spots potential, and in terms of celebrating the moment…past moments, present moments, and those to come.

Let’s look first to the past, to those special treasured moments, times of shared love that are rooted in our lives. Just because moments are gone by, doesn’t mean they have lost their ability to bring joy. Pull out those old albums filled with photos. Laugh over the front-toothless-grandchild, chuckle over the image of the family’s black lab trying to be a lap dog. And, yes, get all teary over the sight of an oldest grandson or daughter in academic cap and gown.

Each image represents a treasured moment that is as important to our ability to enjoy the present day as is the physical touch and actual live presence of our loved ones. As noted by author Haruki Murakami, “Memories warm you up from the inside.”

That said, look beyond memories that have been preserved in visual images and let other senses loose as well. Remember the moments of the fragrance of a roasting turkey, a baked pie, the soothing sounds of a crackling fireplace fire, the sounds of a football game. Fill today’s void in your environment with similar tastes, sounds, and smells that resurrect the airs of past Thanksgivings.

But that was all about celebrating past moments; what can be done to celebrate the present moment? The first seemingly apparent solution is to plan small gatherings with family, neighbors or friends while meeting current social distancing criteria.

But in cases where personal gatherings aren’t possible, consider gathering family and/or friends via Zoom, enlivened with holiday themed activities. Ask young grandkids to create and perform a short play or dance or song; have older kids compete in a game of holiday trivia. Where Zoom gatherings don’t fit the bill, schedule a Facetime call, enjoy opening pre-sent cards, gifts.

Remember to enjoy the in-the-air peace and joy of nature. Take a walk outside and let your senses breath it in. Collect such treasures as mums, bittersweet, or other pieces that strike your eye and bring them inside for continued delight.

Thanksgiving holiday celebrations are times of both thanks and sharing, a critical focus that we cannot ignore in the face of the new pandemic presence. Can we think, for example, of new ways of sharing? Of thanking others? A recognition toast perhaps, virtual or otherwise. Maybe something as simple as a family holiday recipe exchange. Perhaps a challenge to the youngsters to write, or to create images, of all they have to be thankful for. Or, to identify their favorite things accompanied by suggestions as to how they might share them with others.

Thanksgiving Day, and the entire following holiday season, is built to great extent on promises of giving. Whether through giving of tangible or financial possessions or by volunteer service, the possible options are too many to suggest here. It is, however, probably no coincidence that Giving Tuesday is scheduled on the Tuesday after Thanksgiving. This global celebration of generosity encourages people throughout the world to give what gifts of support they can to help others in their communities through nonprofit organizations and in so doing to bring about the “warm glow of satisfaction” said to be experienced by people who give.

So, whether it is through celebration of memories that warm us up from the inside, or the warmth of giving satisfaction, hopefully we will find that there is more than one way to turn this pandemic constrained holiday into one that will be long remembered as a truly joyful celebration.

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Ask Dr. Gramma Karen is published every other Tuesday.

Email queries to [email protected]

Dr. Rancourt’s most recent book is,

It’s All About Relationships:

New Ways to Make Them Healthy and Fulfilling, at Home and at Work.

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