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Positive psychology and enjoying the holidays

Katherine K. Dahlsgaard, lead psychologist of the Anxiety Behaviors Clinic at Children's Hospital of Philadelphia, wrote this for's "Healthy Kids" blog.

Katherine K. Dahlsgaard, lead psychologist of the Anxiety Behaviors Clinic at Children's Hospital of Philadelphia, wrote this for's "Healthy Kids" blog.

'Happy holidays!!!" Let me break it to you: The holidays aren't necessarily happy. They don't, by virtue of occurring, guarantee joy. And yet the thought of going out of our way to pursue happiness during the holidays seems a little . . . bah, humbug.

The field known as positive psychology politely disagrees. Positive psychology - the study of human happiness - has shown over and over that simple positive activities increase well-being. In other words, actively pursuing happiness will make your family happier - no matter the season.

Here are tips from positive psychology on how to better enjoy the holidays.

Participate in more social events than usual. Relationships are built and maintained through shared positive experiences. Happy people are social people. Spending time with family during the holidays is a given, but how about using the season as a prompt to make new friendships and strengthen old ones? Reach out and plan get-togethers with other families - they don't have to be elaborate. Why not buy Christmas trees together? Carpool to the mall? (That's one fewer parking space you'll have to find!) You can also plan play dates around making cookies or snowmen or gifts.

Teach the skill of savoring. Research has shown that mindfully attending to an activity makes us enjoy it more. So model eating the cookies slowly for your children - commenting on their taste, smell, feel - rather than scarfing them down and wondering why you feel empty rather than full. When looking at a familiar holiday scene - the tree, the candles - encourage your children to describe three things they hadn't noticed. These moments go by so quickly - but there is joy to be found by slowing them down.

Help your children cultivate their strengths. If your child is crafty, let her plan the design for the tree. If your child's strength is gratitude, let him lead the prayer. An especially kind child can pick the charities to which your family gives this season. Make it clear that you are suggesting these activities - they should be voluntary - because your child already possesses the particular strength needed to carry it out. And consider ditching New Year's resolutions. Instead, help your children identify their signature strengths and make specific plans for how they will deploy them throughout the new year - a subtle shift, but one that focuses on celebrating virtue rather than dwelling on vice.

Add exercise and stir. Abundant studies show that exercise lessens depression and anxiety, as well as increases positive emotions and self-esteem. There's a lot of sitting around during the holidays, so take special care to plan active events to celebrate them: A family hike on a chilly Christmas Eve makes coming back to the hearth all that more cozy. A game of touch football on New Year's Day can unite the neighborhood. Long walks to see lights are better than long drives. Exercising together will provide your family with an almost guaranteed positive experience.

Happy holidays. I mean it this time.