The Science of Us Guide to Your Holiday Weekend

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Photo: Dennis Hallinan/Getty Images

The holiday season is a venerable cornucopia of psychological minefields. There’s the time with family (which could be fun or terrible, depending), the stress of travel (or the excitement of travel), the burden of shopping for presents (or the joy of shopping for presents) … you get the idea. The bottom line is, there are roughly a zillion things that — depending on timing and circumstance and the people involved — could either fill the next few days with holiday cheer, or leave you longing for this whole thing to be over already.

Luckily, psychological minefields are kind of in our wheelhouse. Let Science of Us guide you through a few common holiday phenomena, and hopefully you’ll emerge intact on the other side — and maybe even with a few moments for the memory books.

First things first: No matter where you’re headed this weekend, hopefully you’re not showing up empty-handed. What’s your plan for holiday shopping?

a) Spend hours searching for the absolute perfect gift, something personal and deeply meaningful.

b) Go for something practical that you know they’ll use.

c) Give them cash — the best gift is one they can shop for themselves.

Here’s a disappointing truth: Putting in the most effort doesn’t necessarily correspond to the best gift. Cash, as it turns out, is the great equalizer of gift-giving season — research has shown that it’s the one present that pretty much everyone would be happy to receive.

If stuffing a bill in an envelope feels like trampling on the holiday spirit, though, one fairly foolproof strategy is to just imagine what the recipient would use that cash for, and then buy whatever that is. And it’s not cheating if they tell you! People appreciate when you get them exactly what they ask for. In fact, practicality in general gets a bad rap when it comes to presents. Fancy gifts may seem more special, but most people would rather receive something that’s just easy to use (and yes, that can be a tangible thing — some studies suggest that experiences bring more happiness than objects, but stuff can make you happy, too). Likewise, a goofy novelty present may spark a great reaction when they unwrap it, but a more meaningful gift might be something they’ll return to again and again over the long term. By the way, it’s totally fine to give the same present to multiple people — you’re already running around, so why not give yourself the gift of a little time saved?

You’ve set up your out-of-office reply, jammed a few days’ worth of clothes into a bag, double-checked to make sure you have all your presents, and now it’s time to get going. What’re your thoughts on traveling?

a) I don’t mind it — I’m just excited to get where I’m going.

b) Ugh, the worst.

Ever notice how time seems to crawl when you’re stuck in the airport? Ditto for all those hours you spend jammed into an airborne metal tube with several hundred strangers.

But depending on how jazzed you are to reach your destination, there may be an upside to that cruel slowing of the clock: Time also slows down when you finally reach your destination. Monotony, somewhat counterintuitively, tends to contract time, while novelty stretches it out. Any break from your normal routine, then, whether it’s a vacation to an unfamiliar locale or a trip to your parents’ house, will seem longer than the same amount of time spent back at home, doing your regular thing — for better or for worse.

You’ve finally made it home, given everyone their hugs, and dropped your bags in your childhood bedroom — the one with the same posters, same framed pictures, even the same sheets that were there when you occupied it full-time. How does it feel to be back in a blast from your past?

a) I feel old! It’s kinda weird, seeing how much time has passed since all this stuff felt like mine.

b) I feel like a kid again. It’s like nothing’s changed, me included.

There’s a concept in social science called family systems theory: the idea that each member of the family functions as part of the larger whole, with each person working with and around the others to keep the larger unit running smoothly. That can mean division of labor — one person does the driving, one walks the dog, one handles most of the cooking or plans all the birthdays — but it can also mean falling into settled patterns of interaction: The parents have the authority, the kids act like kids.

Even after the kids grow up and move out, though, those roles can be hard to shake off. And during gatherings like the holidays — when grown adults spend several days at a time with their parents and older relatives — many people find themselves naturally reverting back into some version of their younger selves, both in how they’re treated and in how they’re treating those around them.

If that’s never been an issue for you, great! You’ve avoided an all-too-common minefield in the transition from kid to someone’s adult child. But if it sounds uncomfortably familiar, there’s some good news — as psychologist Daniel Shaw has explained to Science of Us, the key to breaking the pattern is simply becoming aware of it. And once you are, the next step is simple: Just be yourself. To be specific, your normal-life, away-from-home, most natural self, even if it doesn’t necessarily jibe with the way you typically act around your immediate family.

“The parents and sibs are going to keep treating you the way they always did unless there are repeated learnings to the contrary,” Shaw said. “It would take a concerted effort on your part — it doesn’t have to be dramatic, but a series of events that suggest to your parents or your sibs that ‘Wow, she’s changed.’” It’s not necessarily something you can turn around in a single holiday gathering, in other words, but there’s no time like the present to get things started.

Plates have been scraped clean, seconds have been taken, plates have been scraped clean again, dessert has been served and devoured — and now, finally, the holiday dinner is over. How’re you holding up?

a) I’m pretty satisfied, thanks for asking.

b) Ask me in a few hours when I’m not too full to talk. In the meantime, I’ll be here, clutching my belly and groaning softly.

Sure, a big family meal may be a traditional way to celebrate the holidays, but the aftermath is no less traditional: the moment when at least one eater pushes back their chair, feels the waves of fullness wash over them, and thinks — or says aloud — that they feel oh so very fat right now.

Feeling fat, as Science of Us has explained, is subtly different from having an unhealthy body image: It’s more temporary, more situationally based. You can be perfectly satisfied with your body and still have fat-feeling days, or even just fat-feeling moments. And while a giant feast can certainly trigger one, the feeling is often more about what’s happening in your mind than what’s happening in your body. People more susceptible to feeling fat tend to have higher levels of neuroticism, a personality trait that makes them more sensitive to environmental influences — including, in this case, a well-meaning (or passive-aggressive) comment from a relative about your healthy appetite.

And sometimes, your own expectations can be the culprit. If you’ve spent days planning a full-on binge of your mom’s cooking — and dreading the overstuffed sensation you’ll have to endure afterward — chances are good that you’ll end up feeling as bloated as you anticipated. Just make sure to leave enough room in that travel bag of yours for some stretchy pants.

The Science of Us Guide to Your Holiday Weekend