A Fresh Look at Holiday Stress

Going back to graduate school this Fall has been a learning experience, not just academically, but personally.   Prior to this return to school, I was never an academic overachiever.  Usually I was happy with just an A-/B+ level of performance.  I felt those grades were sufficient to get me to wherever I wanted to go without stressing myself out and also allowing me to pursue my other interests.  That worked, for the most part, anyway.

The stakes have changed this time around.  Somehow, in the 20 years since I graduated, apparently I have developed some ego regarding my academic performance.  I have wanted to perform to impress – myself and others.  Suddenly, here in my mid-life, I feel like I have something to prove.

This mindset is insane, given that I just added a full-time graduate program on top of my already busy life.  The stress from my own expectations was impairing my ability to enjoy being back in school and my ability to be present in the rest of my life.  In short, I was making myself miserable and my grades were, well, still A-/B+.

We learned in school about satisficing, or being happy with excellence instead of perfection.  I decided to satisfice more regarding school.  I changed my strategy a bit so that I was working more consistently, even during so called ‘down times’, but I also would stop myself from over-editing by turning my assignments in when I felt they were pretty good rather than editing up to the deadline.

Not surprisingly, I have started to enjoy school and my life once again.  Surprisingly, my grades went up when I stressed less and enjoyed more.

I have found this phenomenon to also often apply when it comes to blogging.  Sometimes when I overthink a blog, the response is well, tepid.  My most popular blogs have been more spontaneous and off the cuff.

How does this lesson apply to the holidays?

Let me digress first to two other related concepts.  Another phenomenon we learned about in school is the hedonic treadmill.  The hedonic treadmill refers to the euphoria we get from things that bring us pleasure, say a nice new television, quickly wears off and then we need something even nicer the next time.  “You got me only one more pair of Jimmy Choos?”   We also learned about the peak-end heuristic: what we remember about an event is the peak experience, whether good or bad, and the ending.  We tend to forget everything in-between.

In other words, most of what we do over the holidays will not be noticed, will result in the need for something bigger/better, will be forgotten, or will stress us out to the point we or others cannot enjoy it or it impairs our performance.   So don’t be afraid to scale it down and choose being present with your loved ones over focusing on the trappings of the holidays.  Being calm and happy during the holidays will make you the Christmas valedictorian.