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Psychological Sciences professor offers advice and sense of optimism for holidays

Tracy Witte, professor of psychological sciences

This time of year usually brings people together to celebrate the holidays. Whether it's taking a trip to spend time with family or heading out with friends for a New Year's Eve celebration, a collective tendency toward togetherness is a fundamental part of the holidays. Even though many of us are separated from friends and loved ones, Tracy Witte, the Alumni Professor and Jane Dickson Lanier Professor in Psychological Sciences, says that we can find new ways to celebrate togetherness.

With the coronavirus still raging and record numbers still being set, Witte offers some positive ways we can safely celebrate the holidays.

What can people do to look forward to during the holidays this year?
My hope is people will celebrate differently and celebrate safely. I do think there is a sense of optimism that people have, especially with the news about the vaccine. A scientific achievement is something to celebrate, and hopefully that will get us back to something looking like normal maybe by next New Year's. So, I think that will brighten everyone's spirits, but I also realize things are going to feel different this year. I hope people will celebrate with the members of their household and come up with new traditions that they can implement and look forward to. And of course, I think a lot of people should try and reach out to their loved ones using one of the many technologies that allows us to spend time with them, safely.

Is it true that holidays are difficult for a lot of people and tend to bring about a sense of sadness or depression for some?
I know that it's a widespread belief that suicide is more common during the holidays. But that actually turns out to be a myth. And the reason is gathering with people is very protective. And there's a sense of community spirit during the holidays, and there's a lot of beauty and decorations on display – which of course those things are not necessarily going to prevent suicide, but I think that the sense of social connection is really important. So, we don't typically expect an increase in suicide around the holidays, and I would assume depression rates are probably similar.

That said, this holiday season is going to be much more difficult for people than normal. Let's not forget that there will be almost 300,000 empty chairs during the holidays. People will be missing loved ones who have passed away from the pandemic. And then there are many people who aren't able to see family over the holidays. I know that's true for our own household. For the first time in the 11 years that I've lived here, we're not traveling to see family during Christmas and so that's really hard.

What I would say as a psychologist to help people stay upbeat is figure out ways to feel that sense of connection, even if you can't physically be together. I cannot emphasize enough how much of a human need it is to feel connected to other people.

How important is it for society to remain optimistic as we close out this mentally exhausting year?
As a clinical psychologist and someone who focuses on studying suicide, we pay a lot of attention to hopelessness as a big risk factor and feeling like things are bad now and they're not going to get any better. And so the opposite of that is hope. So you can try to shift your focus to the positive things that are happening, because of this vaccine and hopefully other developments that will turn this into a temporary thing that we can get through.

I also want to emphasize that we shouldn't minimize the negative emotions someone is feeling. It's healthy to acknowledge that things aren't exactly the way we want them to be right now. There's a lot of pressure to pretend like everything is OK right now, and I think it can be healing to just acknowledge that "I'm sad" or angry, and sometimes it feels like "I can't do this." But we need to remember that things aren't always going to be this way. There is good reason to believe that things are going to shift, and that can help.

Speaking of closing out this year, do you recommend people set goals, instead of making resolutions for the new year? And is it important for people to begin a new year with a list of things that they want to achieve?
Based on the research, we know that most of the time that people make New Year's resolutions, they kind of give up on them. So although I’m not a big proponent of New Year’s resolutions, I do think it's important for people to take stock and evaluate what they might want to change. And so setting goals for what you'd like to change or achieve can be really helpful and, in particular, we know that people are more likely to accomplish goals when they make a specific plan. So, rather than making a resolution that you want to exercise more during the new year, you could set a more specific goal of going for a walk three times a week. If you start to lay out exactly how you're going to accomplish that, like, oh, you know, my kid sleeps until 7:30 in the morning, so I could go for a walk at 6:30 a.m., Monday, Wednesday, Friday, and that would work out well. And so, having a concrete plan for it can make it more likely that you follow through.

I also emphasize that people should focus on behaviors they have actual control over. A really popular resolution is to lose weight, and what we know is that most diets don't work in the long term. People don't tend to keep the weight off, but there are a lot of things that you can do that are beneficial for your health and increase your energy. So rather than saying, "I want to lose 20 pounds this year," focus on doing 30 minutes of physical activity a few times a week, or make sure that every meal involves some vegetables. Those are things you can do each day and you can see what you're accomplishing along the way. Healthy habits are more important than the numbers on the scale.

Tags: Faculty Research Psychological Sciences

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