For some, finding the cheer in Christmas may be difficult. It reminds me of a letter Martha Washington wrote to a friend in 1789.
The Revolutionary War was finally over and both George and Martha had aspired to retire from public life. In the letter to her friend, Martha expressed her disappointment, since, after all, it was the first year of George’s presidency, and such would not be the reality. As she grappled with her husband’s decision, she expressed the following statement:
“I am still determined to be cheerful and happy in whatever situation I may be; for I have also learned from experience, that the greater part of our happiness or misery depends on our dispositions, and not on our circumstances. We carry the seeds of the one or the other about with us in our minds wherever we go.” (1)
One helpful choice is to collect in your mind a list of virtues such as honor, love, truth, justice, goodness, loveliness, honesty, purity, things of good report, and praiseworthiness, for example. This type of list offers fertile ground for addressing a negative topic that might otherwise induce us toward a miserable or negative frame of mind. “Is there anything here that is honorable or full of goodness?” You might ask. If there is, find a way to think or speak about it that way.
A good way to identify our state of mind is to do a personal experiment (2). Make a commitment to say nothing negative for three weeks. Only say neutral or positive things. If you mess up, you must start over. See how many weeks it takes you to finish. You may find a significant difference in your insight into your thinking patterns from start to finish.
The above experiment teaches me that whenever we have a chance to reframe a topic of discussion or thought pattern onto a more positive and virtuous one (yet maintaining an honest bent) we should do it. It’s good for our health. One of the first human studies on stress and wound healing, for example, involved caregivers of family members with dementia. These caregivers took “24 percent longer to heal a small, standardized dermal wound than matched controls” (3). This was one of the first studies to suggest that the nature of a person’s thoughts and stress levels affect the immune system.
I have personally experienced this many times. In times of relative ease, there has been a greater misery; while despite difficult circumstances, I have had times of a greater peace and contentment. But more commonly, for many of us, myself included, difficult circumstances and miserable thoughts too often run together.
Winston Churchill once said, “Christmas is a season not only of rejoicing but of reflection.” As we reflect during this Christmas season, let us choose to have an attitude of gratitude.
1. Taken from Anna C. Reed. The Life of George Washington: Written for the American Sunday-School Union and Revised by the Committee of Publication. American Sunday-School Union Committee of Publication. Jan 1842. American Sunday-School Union. https://play.google.com/books/reader?id=ry4TAQAAMAAJ&pg=GBS.PP10&hl=en
2. I learned this from conducting Dr. Neil Nedley’s Depression and Anxiety program.
3. Gouin JP, Kiecolt-Glaser JK. The impact of psychological stress on wound healing: methods and mechanisms. Immunol Allergy Clin North Am. 2011;31(1):81-93.