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7 ways to recapture happiness at family holidays

"Home for the holidays" may conjure lovely images of grandma baking cookies, piles of gifts, and long snowy walks with loved ones. But for many, the picture may not be as lovely: tight budgets, long work hours, illness, stress, and long-running family tensions may dampen spirits. And long walks may be the last thing you want to take with certain curmudgeonly relatives.

"Holidays are physical, emotional, and financial stress tests," Dr. Amit Sood of the Mayo Clinic told CBS News. "What should be enjoyable becomes a stressful event."

Sood, a professor of medicine and the author of the books "The Mayo Clinic Guide to Stress-Free Living" and "The Mayo Clinic Handbook for Happiness," said many people try too hard to overachieve during holiday time.

He and other experts say it's possible to ease up on that drive for perfection and reclaim the joy of the season, and offer this advice:

Revive your childhood wonder

Sood said grown-ups often find the holidays a burden and a responsibility - it becomes too much about setting a picture-perfect table, decorating the house a la HGTV, looking fabulous.

But kids don't bother with those trappings, and enjoy themselves a lot more.

"We can take inspiration from children and how they really enjoy the holidays - eating the good food, playing with the gifts, being with their friends. One part of growing up is we lose the child within us and become perfectionists and we of course have too many imaginary fears. We have egos. We are not in play mode," he said.

Try the three-minute rule

"Instinctively, we are judgmental of others," said Sood. It's the way humans are wired. "Our brain is designed as a fault-pointing machine."

He recommends an exercise he calls the three-minute rule: For the first three minutes after you greet someone, treat them like your long-lost friend. Choose not to think about how you can improve them, how they're falling short or something you wish they'd done differently. Instead, send a silent good wish their way.

"Make your first instinct compassion," he recommends.

Sood calls this "kind attention."

Lay the groundwork

If there's a relative who is always grumpy or picks a fight at holiday gatherings, try calling them in advance or writing an email or a card, said Sood. Find some quality about them that is good and tell them you are looking forward to that part of them, no matter how small: a pie they bake well, a skill they have, their love of baseball.

"It is very difficult for someone to dislike you if they know you like them," said Sood.

If they're an angry person, don't take it personally. "Anyone upset or angry, there is a very high likelihood that person is hurting. That person is like a volcano and has got lava inside," said Sood.

If you can figure out what troubles them, validating their concern may help ease their tension and normalize their feelings, he suggested.

Laugh at minor catastrophes

There is always some sort of catastrophe at the holidays, said Pauline Wallin, a clinical psychologist and author of the book "Taming Your Inner Brat: A Guide for Transforming Self-Defeating Behavior."

"From plane delays to forgetting to put the turkey in the oven to something breaking. If you're going to laugh about it later, you might as well laugh at it now," Wallin told CBS News.

Same goes for relatives who like to pick fights or use sarcasm to jab at others. Try humor with them, or just pretend to agree with their comments and they'll have nowhere to go with it, she said.

For example, if they comment on your weight, Wallin said responding with a laugh and "Oh yeah, I'm a real butterball," can stop them in their tracks.

"You take away their power if you agree with them." she said.

Lower your "happiness threshold"

Diamonds, a new car, a romantic vacation by the sea. It often takes a lot to please adults, Sood said. But you may be happier if you recalibrate your expectations.

"Our 5-year-old, when we go to the Olive Garden, she reaches the top of her happiness level when they bring that chocolate cake at the end of the meal." He said that dessert is all it takes for her to be ecstatically happy.

"Find the extraordinary within ordinary things. If you're waiting for something extraordinary, don't hold your breath. Don't wait for that double rainbow or you'll be waiting a very long time," Sood said.

Focus instead on the small pleasures of a family baseball game in the backyard, the smell of dinner cooking in the oven, a quiet conversation with an elderly relative.

Practice daily joy

Maybe you've gotten into the habit of negative thinking. Try instead when you wake up in the morning to think about five people who make you happy.

In your mind's eye, "look into the eyes" of someone who made or makes a positive difference in your life, such as a parent, a dear friend, your spouse, or your child, Sood said.

Offer help

Stressed-out parents snapping at their kids can put a damper on your holidays. Instead of pulling away or feeling trapped, offer a helping hand, said Wallin.

"You might ask the parent, 'Is there something I can do to help?' Mostly they'll say no. But by virtue of making the connection, you will be more inclined to feel sympathetic than scornful," she said.

Sood added, you'll feel better about family holidays if you try to find peace, give of yourself, and focus on others. "It is much easier to say good-bye when you have loved and were able to show it."

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