The Christmas season is supposed to be the happiest time of year – at least according to popular culture. Carols like “It’s the Most Wonderful Time of Year” proclaim Christmas cheer, while advertisements show happy people enjoying seemingly perfect holidays. People post their good news (but not their bad news) on Facebook and cheery Christmas card letters idealize families’ lives.
But ironically, right when our culture says people should feel happiest, they actually feel the unhappiest. A lot of that unhappiness comes from realizing that their lives are far from the blissful state so often portrayed in cultural ideals of Christmas magic. The images of smiling people on Christmas cards and the overly effusive social media posts remind those going through tough times about how unhappy they feel and pressure them to feel better. When they don’t, frustration about missing out on Christmas cheer makes them feel even worse.
Yet, on the first Christmas, the angel who announced Jesus’ birth declared: “…I bring you good news that will cause great joy for all the people…” (Luke 2:10). Great joy? For everyone?
Even when you’re unhappy, you can still experience joy this Christmas. That’s because happiness and joy are different – even though the two terms are used interchangeably in pop culture. Happiness is based on circumstances, so you can only feel happy in good situations. Joy, however, doesn’t depend on good circumstances. It’s based on your relationship with a good God, which you can rely on even during bad circumstances. You can experience Christmas joy even in the midst of unhappiness. Here’s how:
1. Learn from those who experienced the original Christmas.
Life wasn’t exactly going well for the people in the biblical Christmas story. Joseph and Mary were away from the comforts of their Nazareth home, obligated to go to Bethlehem for a government census, which forced them into crowded and unsanitary conditions. Since there was no room for them to stay in Bethlehem’s inn, they had to sleep in a stable with animals – and Mary had to give birth there. The shepherds who would witness the angel make history’s most joyful announcement were also dealing with tough circumstances. Working long hours yet still living in poverty, the shepherds had to endure mistreatment from other people who considered them less important just because of their humble profession. Experiencing all of that stress surely made these biblical people unhappy.
Yet in their unhappiness, they still trusted God. It was their choice to keep relying on God during unhappy circumstances that opened doors in their souls to experience joy. Through trust, they kept their connections to God strong so they could receive the joy that only comes from God. You can do the same!
2. Give and receive forgiveness.
Carrying around bitterness in your soul will make you unhappy. Thankfully, forgiveness frees you from bitterness, making it possible for you to experience the joy God wants to give you. God calls everyone who truly loves him to give and receive forgiveness. “Forgive as the Lord forgave you,” Colossians 3:13 urges.
It’s vital to accept God’s forgiveness, forgive those who have hurt you, and ask those whom you have hurt for their forgiveness. Only then will the burden of bitterness go away, freeing you to receive the full amount of joy God is hoping you’ll discover. Keep in mind that God will empower you throughout the forgiveness process if you’re willing to forgive. Think about people with whom you have unresolved conflict or against whom you’re currently holding a grudge.
Forgiveness doesn’t mean forgetting or excusing what happened, but it does mean trusting God to handle the situation from now on. Pray about it, letting it go into God’s care. If you can communicate with the person, tell him or her that you’ve chosen to forgive. Now think about your own mistakes and pray about those, receiving God’s forgiveness and forgiving yourself because God has forgiven you. Contact people who you’ve hurt through your mistakes, asking them to forgive you, as well.
3. Do something creative.
Creativity promotes joy. A plethora of research studies have linked creative activities to happy feelings. For instance, a 2014 study from the University of North Carolina-Greensboro revealed that people were most likely to be doing something creative like cooking meals or drawing pictures when they felt happy.
Beyond feelings of happiness, creativity leads to joy because it points you toward the Creator who gave you the ability to be creative. Which activities help you express your God-given creativity the most? Play Christmas music on the piano, saxophone, or guitar. Bake an elaborate Christmas dessert. Write a Christmas love letter to your spouse. Design a new ornament for your Christmas tree. Build an original toy to give your kids for Christmas. Choose some kind of creative project to do this Christmas season.
4. Pursue wonder.
Nurturing a sense of wonder will often bring you into contact with joyful moments. Wonder enlarges your perspective so you can notice more of God’s work in your life, which gives you reasons to celebrate!
Jesus declares in Luke 18:17 that “…anyone who will not receive the kingdom of God like a little child will never enter it.” Children pursue wonder by learning with open hearts and minds. Start each day with openness, eager to learn what God wants to teach you. Stay in frequent contact with God during each day and night, through prayer. Then you’ll discover lots of wonder this Christmas that will bring joy into your life.
5. Serve others.
Turn your struggle with unhappiness into service to people in need this Christmas season. In the process, your focus will change from a preoccupation with your own problems to joy as God works through you to change the world for the better.
Isaiah 61:3 promises that God will “provide for those who grieve” by turning bad situations around to something good: “to bestow on them a crown of beauty instead of ashes, the oil of gladness instead of mourning, and a garment of praise instead of a spirit of despair.” God can use your sorrow to develop more compassion in you – and when you act on that compassion by helping others, you open doors for joy to flow into their lives and your own!
No matter how unhappy you may feel this Christmas, God wants to give you the gift of joy. So let God hand it to you. Then rip off the wrapping paper, open the box, and enjoy celebrating with your loving heavenly father!
Whitney Hopler is author of the Wake Up to Wonder book and the Wake Up to Wonder blog, which help people thrive through experiencing awe. She leads the communications work at George Mason University’s Center for the Advancement of Well-Being. Whitney has served as a writer, editor, and website developer for leading media organizations, including Crosswalk.com, The Salvation Army USA’s national publications, and Dotdash.com (where she produced a popular channel on angels and miracles). Connect with Whitney on Twitter and Facebook.
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