Whew! What a year it has been. We’ve all been through the wringer and it looks like this will be our reality for a while. How do we handle such hard stuff and not let circumstances steal our joy, especially around the holidays?

I grew up with a brother who had many special needs. Every single day posed some kind of challenge to him. While he was never supposed to live past 30, he passed away at 56. Because of his life circumstances, he had every reason not to be joyful, yet he was one of the most joyful, funny people I’ve ever known. I’m thinking I could take a cue or two from him about navigating hard times without letting them steal my joy. As we approach the holidays, here are some things Lee taught me about finding joy when life is hard that may be helpful for you, too.

1. Don’t let circumstances dictate your mindset.

Even in the worst situations, it is possible to have joy because you can choose it. What amazed me about Lee was although he had bad days, they were always the exception to the rule. I don’t remember my mom saying to him, “You are going to be happy,” and that wouldn’t have worked anyway. Somehow, he was able to look past all of his daily challenges and experience joy. Boy, do I want that! The holidays may not go like we want or plan for, but they’re going to happen and we get to choose to make the best of them!

2. Focus on others.

Lee was always thinking of others. Once, on a trip, he bought so many t-shirts for friends and co-workers, he didn’t have room for his own clothes when it was time to pack. If my mom hadn’t made him pack his clothes, I guarantee you he would have left them behind. He loved people and genuinely cared for them. Spending time loving on others and letting them care for us can help us experience joy.

3. Wishing away your current set of circumstances can steal joy, and it’s a waste of time.

No doubt, all of us are over COVID-19 and ready to get on with life. But, the more we talk about and focus on that, the more joyless we become. My brother was on dialysis for the last 10 years of his life. Three times a week he would sit in the chair for hours while the machines worked. He didn’t like it, but I never really heard him complain. He took that opportunity to meet a whole bunch of people he never would have known otherwise. Lee chose to see the opportunity in his current set of circumstances instead of focusing on wishing them away. We can do that, too. 

4. Make a list of all the things that bring you joy.

Sweets, football, holidays and people, for example. My brother never met a sweet he didn’t like, but he especially liked sugar-coated orange slices. Give him a container of those and his face lit up like you had given him gold. While he couldn’t add numbers, he knew football better than most and was an avid fan. He loved every holiday, but Christmas was his favorite. Being around people made him happy. What brings you joy? How can you bring joy to others during the holidays?

5. Avoid information overload.

Lee was aware when tough things were happening in our world and he took in the information, but he didn’t go looking for more. News and talking heads are available 24/7, so it’s easy to get drawn into the same news over and over again. I’m not even going to go there with social media, but…you know. Talk about joy-stealing on steroids—that’ll do it for you. We have to learn to turn it off. I haven’t spoken to anybody yet who regretted limiting it. This is a great time to take a break from technology and spend that time doing activities that bring you and others joy.

I’ve learned it is exhausting to focus on the negative and it for sure doesn’t help me work my way through the hard times. During times when we are really put to the test, just doing one thing differently can help begin the process of flipping the script. Circumstances will only steal our joy if we allow them to this holiday season.

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