After my column on hangover cures, Editor Heber Taylor suggested a follow-up on holiday overindulgence of a different kind: food. So, I reflected on the tendency to overdo it during the holidays in so many ways, not only food and drink but also the spree of shopping and buying that we indulge in so profligately.

Indeed, this annual shopping spree has become an economic mainstay in our economy, and retailers of all kinds count on us to turn the Holy Days into a celebration of materialism. 

So why is this? There are several possible explanations. An obvious one about overeating and drinking is that traditionally the holidays occurred at the start of winter when food was likely to be scarce. Fattening up at holiday feasts was a survival technique.

We act just like bears, which consume huge amounts of calories before hibernating. In our society, though, food remains abundant during the cold season, so those extra calories don’t get burned off but are still hanging on our waistlines by spring.

My advice is to continue to be as active as you can, be mindful of portion sizes, eat slowly enough to notice your stomach’s signals that it is full, and weigh yourself daily as a form of feedback and discipline. You are not a bear!

As for the shopping and buying overindulgence, I have a theory: we are trying to fill up empty buckets. This isn’t the “bucket list” of trying to do things important to us before we die. This is the invisible bucket of emotional needs we all need to fill regularly to live healthy, content, satisfied lives.

At the holidays, we try to make up for all the deficiencies by giving our families, friends, loved ones and ourselves the kind of positive affirmation and support needed all through the year. So we shop, buy, give gifts and fill socks and bellies not just to celebrate the season but to make up for what we might have given in the preceding year. 

Now this is just a theory, mind you, and I could be wrong. However, it brings up the positive psychology approach popularized in the best-seller “How Full is Your Bucket?” by Tom Rath.

This book is based on a seemingly simple metaphor: a dipper and a bucket. We all need a certain amount of positive recognition, feedback and affirmation to keep our emotional bucket full. When we don’t get this dipped into our buckets regularly, we suffer on many levels.

There are also those in our lives who take a dipper into our bucket and drain off our positive emotions. On the other hand, a kind word from a parent, friend, mentor or boss can add to our bucket and help us to have enough to share with others. When their bucket is filled, they pass on the fullness to others. 

According to psychology research, we need five positive encounters for every negative one to optimize our potential. Here are some techniques to keep our buckets and those around us full throughout the year, not just at the holiday season: 

  1. Prevent bucket dipping — try to avoid those that take without giving.
  2. Shine a light on what is right — focus on the best in others and on their strengths and tell them. Acknowledge and appreciate your own strengths as well. 
  3. Make best friends — to have friends, be a friend and affirm others’ value regularly.
  4. Give unexpectedly — surprise others often with thoughtful, personalized tokens of your regard for them.
  5. Reverse the Golden Rule — do unto others as they would have you do unto them. Be generous in ways they would appreciate.

So, try to keep those buckets full all year round. This takes a lot of pressure off the holidays to meet unfilled needs left over from the rest of the year — and reduces our tendency to overindulge in multiple ways. 

Dr. Victor S. Sierpina

Dr. Sierpina is the W.D. and Laura Nell Nicholson Family Professor of Integrative Medicine at the University of Texas Medical Branch.

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