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Take Down the Old and Ring in the New

Take down the old and ring in the new

[Editor’s Note: Every month, MCN’s Director of Witness to Witness, Kaethe Weingarten, PhD, shares stories, resources, and helpful tips to support health care workers during these ongoing unprecedented times. Dr. Weingarten also offers a twice-monthly newsletter, filled with resources, recent articles, and her news and views. Sign up for the newsletter and grab bilingual resources on the Witness to Witness webpage.]

For many people, the winter holidays are a time when they put up special decorations – like a tree adorned with lights, sparkly tinsel, and ornaments; or lighted manger scenes on their mantels or lawns; or festive menorahs on windowsills or tables. The glow from these objects warms everyone who sees them. January becomes the time that all this loveliness gets taken down.

In December, I began thinking about the holiday in metaphorical terms, musing about what goes up, what comes down, what we might want to discard, and what we might want to carry over into January and beyond. Here is an example of what I mean. For many people, the holidays are truly magical and for some people they wish the holidays were magical, but they are not. If we draw back the curtain on holiday magic, some of it is made by mothers, who, research tells us, disproportionately contribute to the labor that goes into making holidays special: “There is more pressure to make things magical for those around you. It takes a lot of unseen and underappreciated effort to keep everything humming along smoothly.” However, if you ask people what truly made a holiday special, they mostly say it is being with the people they care about. They don’t usually reply it was a particular gift or party.

So if we asked ourselves two questions: “What do we want to carry over from the holidays into our daily lives?” and “What do we want to leave behind at holiday time – and perhaps not pick up – next year?” what answers might we give?

I’m going to jump start your thinking by suggesting a few topics to consider.

  1. Evaluate and Act: Everyone’s idea of what makes a holiday magical or, more mundanely, special will be different. For some people, a beautifully decorated tree brings joy for weeks. For others the work of finding the tree, putting it up, decorating and preserving it intact from animals, children, and guests is, well…just not worth the effort. For some people, joy comes from watching friends and family unwrap their gifts and telling you that you have found them the exactly perfect present. For others the pressure to find the perfect gift haunts them all year long. For some people a holiday is magical when it lays down memories of good times with cherished company. It’s worth contemplating what you do -- or would prefer to do – to make the winter holidays special. The next step is to consider this: if something is so special once a year, how can you carry it forward? And if something is more work than it’s worth, how can you let it go? 
  2. Find Ways to Relieve Stress: Some readers will reflect that the holidays can be a dismal time for some people who cannot wait for it to be over and there is nothing they would like better than to quickly move on. There are many reasons why someone might feel this way, loss and loneliness being chief among them. While many people in the Northern Hemisphere do get holiday blues or have seasonal affective disorder (SAD) during this time period, they live uncomfortably with these feelings a few weeks a year. A continuing myth is that suicides go up during the holidays. In fact, Federal mortality data clearly show that suicide rates go down in November, December, and January. August has the highest mortality rates!

    However, all is not well during the holidays. Cardiac and noncardiac mortality in the United States have two annual spikes: Christmas and New Year’s . Researchers account for these spikes in two ways: 1. Due to changes in schedules, people taking cardiac medications may forget; and, 2. Stress. One of the rationales for this blog is to take a careful look at holiday practices that cause more stress than joy and to consider letting them go.
  3. Prioritize Resolutions: The end of the year is often a time that people make resolutions for the year to come. This year, Forbes’ annual survey of top New Year’s resolutions has a surprise item topping the list: improving one’s mental health! That should be really good news, right? But when I drill down, I note that activities that I think will help with that improvement are not endorsed by as many people as the old stand-by of weight loss. If I were to advise people, I would suggest that these low scoring items – more time with loved ones, more time on hobbies, improving work-life balance – might promote more well-being than the oftentimes frustrating business of losing weight. 
  4. Reconsider Your Relationship with Food: Since weight loss does seem to be a year-after-year “keeper” resolution, it makes sense to consider why people strive to lose weight at the beginning of the year and then resolve to lose weight at year’s end. Naturally, one pat answer is that people love the food but not the weight. David Ludwig, a researcher and professor of pediatrics at Boston Children’s Hospital says: “When 95% of the population can’t stick to a calorie-restricted diet for the long term, perhaps the problem isn’t willpower, discipline, or compliance…. There is some evidence that people gain much of their annual weight increase during key windows through the year. The extra calories, even if they come during a relatively short time window, seem to get stuck in our bodies, ratcheting up the weight gain for the year.” Ludwig is part of a team promoting a competing hypothesis about why people gain weight and find it difficult to lose it. For those who want to read the basic science behind their carbohydrate-insulin model, you can find it here and here. For those of us who won’t be able to follow the science, he has some simple advice: “[G]ive the body all the calories it wants, but in a different form that supports metabolism and promotes satiety. Fortunately, high-fat foods like nuts and nut butters, full-fat dairy products — especially fermented — avocado, olive oil, even dark chocolate are not only nutritious, but also delicious.” 
  5. Be Thoughtful About Waste: Food is not the only commodity in abundance during the holidays. So is plastic, and other wastes we generate during the holidays. I read about a company that put one’s likenesses onto wrapping paper and for a moment I was tempted to indulge my gift recipients in this added amusement. Then I took hold of myself. 

    A simple google search yielded exactly the answer I wanted to this question: “How much extra waste do we generate during the holidays?” Here it is: “Americans throw away 25% more trash during the Thanksgiving to New Year’s holiday period than any other time of year. The extra waste amounts to 25 million tons of garbage, or about 1 million extra tons per week!” The same site offers lots of suggestions as to how we can minimize this waste, so I won’t repeat their suggestions. Rather, the key point I want to make is how much of the waste we generate derives from reflexive actions that we repeat year to year that we really don’t care about and could eliminate if we applied some reflection and thoughtfulness? I had a beloved aunt who beautifully wrapped her gifts. It makes sense to me that I designate one gift to one person and bring her forward by attributing that wrapping to her, as if she were “with us,” and she is for that moment. But for the rest of my gifts, recycled paper or even pages from the Sunday newspaper are good enough. This relaxing video also provides some ways of wrapping with zero waste.

    Everyone will make different choices; the point is just to think about them. To further motivate us, this comment is helpful: “The future of Earth’s oceans is being built not on the shorefront or in the deeps, but in the human world of shopping, commuting, and consuming.” We each do have a role. What role do you want to play?
  6. Find Commonality: I have written about the toxicity of political polarization in prior blogs, so I am not going to rehash what most of us know keenly from interactions with family, friends, and neighbors. What I didn’t know was how often I mis-estimate the extent of my differences with people who vote differently than I do. More in Common conducted a yearlong research project inquiring the views of thousands of people on a range of topics that Americans care about. It turns out that both Republicans and Democrats “grossly overestimate whether members of the opposing party hold extreme views. We call this a ‘Perception Gap’ — the gap between what we imagine an opposing group believes and what that group actually believes.” If you go to their website, you can take a short quiz to see how well you do on estimating differences. 

    This perception gap matters for many reasons. One reason is that it informs how we vote and – believe it or not – new research shows us that “the more conservative a state’s policies, the shorter the lives of working-age people [in those states.]”  That’s right. If enough people vote conservative, believing that it “protects” us from the radical left views we fear our Democratic fellow citizens hold, then those people will live in states in which conservative majorities in State houses vote for policies that negatively impact our health, for instance, policies that restrict the raising of the minimum wage. Further, research that looked at this phenomenon in relation to specific COVID-19 policies found that “people living in more conservative parts of the United States disproportionately bore the burden of illness and death linked to COVID-19."

    The solution here is not to move across state lines to a state that better conforms to your views and raises your chance of living a longer life, but rather to see whether this  new year you want to leave behind quick judgments about people’s political views and challenge yourself to be more curious about them. It turns out that not just our long-term health, but our short-term health may benefit from that strategy.
  7. Have Honest Conversations: Most of us have either been impacted by winter illnesses or know people who have been. Some of us have had cherished holiday plans canceled due to illness and others now wish those plans had been since people were ill, unmasked at events, and exposed others to a variety of respiratory illnesses. In an era when the honor system we have relied on forever is no longer dependable and the fabric of trust is frayed, what do we do to mend it? 

    Katelyn Jetalina, who writes the Your Local Epidemiologist blog, has some ideas. She writes: “We need to enter conversations with humility. A conversation about false dichotomies (lock down vs. throwing caution to the wind) is necessary. A conversation about disease vs. the needs of a community is necessary. An honest conversation on what we (CDC, state epi, local epi, leaders, communicators) got wrong, got right, and why.” 

    In other words, listening to each other is key! We may want to take down an “I’m right and you’re wrong” attitude and move forward with a “I really want to listen and learn from you. And I hope you will listen to me also” approach.

    No matter what you decide to leave behind in 2022, leave up or take up in 2023, I hope you will do so with plenty of compassion and self-compassion. What exactly is compassion? “It’s goodwill towards all, no matter what!” What is self-compassion? It’s treating yourself with the kindness you would extend to a person you care about deeply. 

    Nothing improves under harsh and punitive conditions. I hope 2023 will bring peace and gladness to all that we cherish and all that we decide to cherish in the coming days.