Szymanski: Cheer in the New Year using whatever works

The Christmas season is promoted as a season of joy and happiness, and for most of us, that is exactly what it is. But for many, the holiday season can herald in depression. Seasonal Affective Disorder and the accompanying loss of daylight can affect the mind and body. Add to that the feeling of despair that some of our elderly and those who live alone experience, and the season does not seem bright.

So how do we cheer up a friend during the season of giving?


Last year was hard for my husband and for me. We had to say goodbye to our beloved Shetland Sheepdog, Ryley, after cancer ravaged his body and made it impossible for him to walk. We had the vet come to our house to keep from stressing him. We didn’t realize then that we would not be able to erase from our minds the picture of him being put to sleep in front of the Christmas tree, or that it would haunt us for the rest of the holiday season. But my wise daughters knew. They came up with a coordinated plan to make us smile through the pain.

Just after the vet left, my phone began to light up with texts. But there were no words, only photos. Both daughters bombarded us with silly photos throughout the evening, and on and off during the days that followed.


How could we not smile at a photo of our then 6-year-old daughter, sitting on the toilet sound asleep, chin on her chest, mouth wide open and legs dangling? Or our oldest granddaughter in the costume store with a giant flamingo sitting on her head? Photo after ridiculous photo came in, including group photos of the family making silly faces. In a time of grief, they made us forget the pain, and for a nanosecond, they made us smile.

In an article on PhyscologyToday.com, Russell Grieger PhD wrote about the effect of humor on humans, “Laughter not only provides pleasure, but it also serves to reduce stress and other forms of emotional misery such as anxiety and fear.”

On www.psychalive.org, author, Lisa Firestone, PhD seems to agree. In an online article, she wrote, “It may seem silly or all too simple, but anything that makes you laugh or smile can actually help convince your brain [that] you are happy.”

Our daughters worked that night to convince us that we were happy, or at least to let us know that happiness would return to our lives in time, and it helped more than they could have imagined.

The digital age we live in does not help when depression comes calling. The side effect of the social media boom is that we frequently communicate without actually being together. Without accompanying facial expressions, hugs and other physical actions an important aspect of communication has been removed. Studies show that the balance of neurochemicals is disrupted, making us more prone to depression, anxiety and unhappiness. While pharmaceutical companies encourage us to readjust the imbalance with a pill, common sense tells us there must be another way. I did a little digging and came up with a list of things to help cheer a friend in need.

The first is to send those silly pictures. In the book, “A Better High: How Eating, Laughing and Other Stuff Can Get You High Naturally, Everyday” author, Dr. Matt Bellace — a clinical neuropsychologist and a standup comedian — says laughter releases the neurotransmitter dopamine, which serves as a reward for the brain, creates a sense of euphoria, and plays a pivotal role in our motivation to continue the behavior.

You can also boost dopamine by playing word games, taking a painting or pottery class, or doing crossword puzzles. That tells me that spending a day laughing with a friend to play word games together or attend an art class could make a difference.

The website www.berries.com says we could help a depressed friend by encouraging them to create a “gratitude sandwich.” Ask them to sandwich one thing that is going wrong between two things that they are grateful for. And when you say it out loud it is easier to see that there is always something positive to focus on. It is another take on the appreciation list.

“Psychology Today” calls serotonin “the confidence molecule” and suggests doing things to boost serotonin levels – things like taking long walks, eating dark chocolate, or playing brain teaser games.

Knowing what your friend likes will help you come up with a plan to make them feel better. For me, anything involving a furry friend helps. Before my miniature horses, Georgie McLittle and Princess Hazel came into my life, I frequently visited the farm where my daughter boards her Chincoteague Pony, Sea Feather. I used to jokingly say that these were my “horse therapy days,” but in actuality, they were therapeutic. I always came away with a feeling of satisfaction, and that is because spending time with pets increases oxytocin levels in the body.

Many sources call oxytocin the “bonding molecule”. This hormone is directly linked to human bonding and to increasing trust and loyalty. Working out at a gym in a group environment or having a jogging partner are good ways to encourage the body to release oxytocin.

In a 2003 study with dogs and humans, oxytocin levels rose in both the dog and the owner after they time spent “cuddling.” Emotional bonding between humans and dogs may have a biological basis in oxytocin. You can also boost oxytocin by giving hugs, spending the day being pampered (like a spa day), or reading together. Studies show that happy people are 21 percent more likely to read a newspaper or book than to watch TV.


I’ve learned first-hand that volunteering can make you feel good, too. Seeing the difference that you can make in another person’s life is empowering. In addition, seeing the pain others must deal with often makes your own woes seem small.

As someone who deals with occasional asthma and has entered my 60s, I feel I’ve passed my running days, but for those who can still gallop, running is another good solution. Runners frequently talk about the runners’ high. That good feeling that exercise brings on is caused by endorphins. If you’ve also passed your running days, consider acupuncture.

A 1999 clinical study (cited in Psychology Today) reported that inserting acupuncture needles into specific body points triggers the production of endorphins, and in a second study, higher levels of endorphins were found in cerebrospinal fluid after patients underwent acupuncture.

Anything that can cheer a friend or make them feel good for the day could be the beginning of an upward trend. Whether you make them laugh, distract them with a game night, take a staycation together, spend a few hours volunteering, or simply sit and read together while eating a box of dark chocolates, you could make a difference in someone’s life in the new year ahead.

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