The Positive Power of Traditions
by Taryn Yates
Ordinarily, my husband and are sticklers about not putting up Christmas decorations until December 1. This year was different. I found myself begging him to let me put them up as soon as Thanksgiving hit. It seemed like more of my neighbors had lights up earlier than in previous years, so why not us? After all, I needed a pick me up. So, I pulled down everything from the attic, set up my little Christmas village, and decorated the mantle, while listening to Perry Como Christmas music. Meanwhile my husband went through the mildly dangerous process of putting up all the lights outside. It took two days and was a welcome distraction from the disappointment of our cancelled Thanksgiving plans. As I hung each stocking, I felt my heart swell in my chest for the first time in a while and took a moment to really appreciate the feeling. Of being excited. Of looking forward to something that has a clear and definite arrival date.
It will come as a surprise to no one when I say this has been a difficult year. We all know it. We all feel it. It is affecting us all in different ways, but it IS affecting ALL of us. When Covid first hit, it seemed to be a scary thing that we watched on television. With increasing anxiety, I watched as the daily incidents rose in Idaho and nationally, but I still didn’t know anyone who had been personally affected. Fast forward nine months and my mother-in-law, brother, best friend, and several other associates have had it. Some have gotten really sick. Some were mostly fine. I feel lucky to say that no one I know has died.
Still, I can’t help but feel as though we have narrowly missed disaster. My 6-year-old has been exposed twice now with two subsequent, back-to-back quarantines in November. He is okay. He never got sick and tested negative. My 3-year old’s preschool has fortunately been able to stay open, although there were a couple of possible exposures that turned out okay- near misses. It has been stressful and sad, and I know that I’m not the only one feeling this way. Seeing my fellow Americans get sick and die is heartbreaking. And the uncertainty of whether or not we will escape this thing safely has turned stress into a constant in my life. So much so that I am worried about its effect on my health and the health of my family.
Which brings me back to decorating. I’ve been decorating my house for the holidays every year for as long as I can remember. It’s a tradition. Participating in family traditions is part of what Dr. Robert Sege and colleagues describe as Engagement. Engagement also includes things like being part of community events and enjoying sports and the arts. It is one of the four building blocks of HOPE (Health Outcomes from Positive Experiences) that Dr. Sege found is his pivotal research provides a powerful buffer against stress and negative experiences. The other three building blocks of HOPE and Resilience are Relationships, Environment, and Opportunity (see positiveexpeirence.org).
I know it seems pretty intuitive that having fun and doing enjoyable things would make you feel better. Yet, the actual impact is more profound that you can imagine. In Dr. Sege’s research paper, people who reported having significant negative experiences in childhood who also had positive experiences, like the building blocks mentioned above, ended up having much better outcomes in health and life than the people who had negative experiences without them.
We can’t always control things. The stress of Covid 19 is here now and will be for while. But this stress doesn’t have to end up hurting us in the long run. Positive Experiences can buffer the worst of the effects and make us stronger. So, go ahead and bake your grandmother’s famous cookies, wrap presents, dance under the winter moon, and do whatever it is you and your family can do safely this year. Celebrate as if your health depends on it, because in a very real way, it does.