Do your holidays need a lift? Here’s how to hack them for thriving

November 23, 2020

By: Betsy Erwin, Monica Worline

Are you looking down the barrel of a holiday season that seems bleak? So many of us can’t spend time with family and friends in the ways we did pre-pandemic, which makes the holiday season a challenge. And for many people, this time of year is already a heavy lift, with holiday stress a leading cause of anxiety or depression even in years without the added difficulties caused by COVID-19.

Here at the University of Michigan’s Ross School of Business Center for Positive Organizations, we were feeling blue, too, which inspired us to use what we know about the science of thriving to hack our holiday blues away. So before you give up on the possibility of a thriving holiday season this year, give some of these holiday hacks a try. Or better yet, use our process, described below, to host your own thriving holiday hackathon! By embracing the idea of thriving as you hack your holidays, you can make the hacking itself feel like a celebration. So, grab a few friends and a little creativity and we guarantee you’ll end up with your  own unique and wonderful celebration, 2020-style.

What makes for a thriving holiday?

Before we could figure out what to do about our holiday blues, we had to step back and ask ourselves a fundamental question: what is it that makes our holidays feel special? Each of us has a unique answer to that question, and getting in touch with our idiosyncratic preferences is an important starting point for holiday hacking. If we don’t design with our essential holiday needs in mind, we might end up with elaborate and beautiful Zoom plans that don’t at all satisfy our hunger for what matters most.

If you’re feeling a little stumped in answering what exactly makes holidays feel special to you, the science of thriving provides useful tips. Thriving flows from the nexus of three interconnected conditions in our lives: 1) relational connections, 2) positive emotions, and 3) meaningful activities.

To hack your holidays for thriving, you need to build in new and creative ways to enhance these three conditions. The good news is that by thinking of ways to enhance just one of these three, you will set the gears in motion to enhance the others as well. So as you hack, choose one of these as a starting point and watch how it opens up other avenues for celebrating that are fresh and new.

Let’s try it together in a couple of examples below. As you think through these holiday hacks, check yourself against these guidelines:

  1. Is your holiday hack easy to use, explain, and share?
  2. Is your holiday hack specific and suited to thriving holidays in the time of COVID in particular?
  3. If you imagine it coming to full fruiting, is your holiday hack likely to generate valuable social outputs such as deeper connections, greater positivity, and more meaningful engagement?
  4. Is the overall design and feeling tone – whether somber or silly – likely to uplift the people who participate?

For many people, powerful connections with loved ones or with members of a cherished community are essential to thriving holidays. Given the isolation created in the pandemic, making these connections feel vivid and bright can be a challenge. That’s where hacking your use of videoconference and phone technology comes in. How might you make a video-based connection feel as close to really being there as possible? Try making the connection more playful. Set up a time to bake holiday cookies together over technology, and in advance of the baking session send out funny holiday-themed aprons, socks, and hats for each person to wear when they join the video bakeathon. As you mix the dough, have each person do a fashion show. The laughs and fun will enhance the sense of connection and enrich the flavor of the season. At the end you’ll have a warm heart as well as a plate of warm cookies, and the fellowship created by playing and baking together will ripple beyond the moment itself.

For other people, tapping into the purpose of the holidays and participating in meaningful rituals is essential to any celebration this time of year. For instance, an important part of any Thanksgiving celebration is the expression of gratitude that infuses the holiday with meaning. If you can’t participate in the same rituals that usually allow you to share expressions of gratitude with family, friends, worship communities, and others, you might try using technological collaboration tools to hack the ritual. For instance, you might start a Google Doc that allows many people to read and edit simultaneously, write some instructions for using the document and a sample entry, and then share it with those you cannot visit on Thanksgiving so that you and they can login and read everyone’s expressions of gratitude. You might use a visual collaboration tool as we did (we used the free and simple website sharing tool called Padlet) to create a gratitude wall, and ask all of your community to make entries on it as part of their Thanksgiving day meditations. As you watch the gratitude become manifest on the wall, you can use the expressions to deepen your own gratitude practice as well. You might just find that this new ritual enhances your Thanksgiving so much that you want to keep it as part of your celebrations every year!

How can I hack even more of my holidays?

If you like the ideas we offered here, you might want to get a few people together and do some more holiday hacking. While the idea of a hackathon was born in the technology sector, it has grown in popularity and diversity since its origins in the computer security world. We recently developed and hosted a Thriving Holiday Hackathon, in which we adapted the hackathon structure to bring the science of thriving into dialogue with the question of how we can create richly connected and meaningful holiday rituals and celebrations in a COVID-19 world.

While you might think a hackathon is a free-for-all, the fact is that there is a strong structural backbone involved. The structure and setup of the event is what allows it to be both highly accessible and highly focused and productive at the same time. Here is the process we developed to meld the science of thriving with the hacking process to make it easy to engage, flexible to use, and generative in its output. Follow these guidelines to structure a fun and productive thriving holiday hackathon yourself.

1. Invite a diverse group of people with different backgrounds and experiences to increase the creative quotient of the hackathon

Part of the magic of successful hackathon teams in the technology world is that they often include designers, coders, philosophers, poets, and people who know nothing about technology! Invite groups of friends who don’t regularly interact or people from different parts of a community group, or bring together a mix of relatives and friends who don’t know one another so that you are more likely to get ideas beyond those that are familiar. Our hackathon started with an invitation to a core group of faculty and staff in our academic center, but quickly expanded to include students, alumni, scholars, and friends of our work outside our center as well.

2. Invite a couple of people to launch the hackathon by offering provocative or inspiring ideas

A hackathon works well when it is both focused on a relatively narrow topic and broad in its conceptual reach. In this case, focusing a hackathon on a holiday works okay, but it is far more powerful to couple that with the breadth of a field like the science of thriving. For our Thriving Holiday Hackathon, we  invited teams of people to hack a holiday of their choosing, but the hacks had to be grounded in some way in the three conditions that foster thriving that we described earlier. To help fire up the creativity, we launched the hackathon by inviting scholars whose work speaks to thriving from different points of view to give 5-minute “provocations” that inspired new ideas and provided some quick conceptual grounding. If you don’t have a bunch of scientists on speed dial, you could use a video or even a quick 5-minute reading to set the stage for the conceptual reach you need to inspire new ways of approaching the hackathon.

3. Write up the requirements for a “hack” submission

In a traditional hackathon, teams work all night to create a working technology that is submitted by the deadline. If the technology doesn’t work, the hack is not considered for a prize. In a Thriving Holiday Hackathon, the guidelines for what “works” are less clear, so you must give people guidelines about what a hack should include and how to submit it. Our guidelines included the following elements:

  1. A descriptive name for the gathering or event;
  2. A description of who would be invited to such an event;
  3. A description of how the event would unfold, including a practice or activity that is grounded in powerful connections, meaningful activity, or positive emotion; and
  4. A visual depiction that captured the mood and feeling of the event, such as a photograph, drawing, collage, or moodboard.

A successful Thriving Holiday Hack included all of these elements, and also enabled other people to read the hacks and take them up and use them in their own celebrations. That’s one way the structure added so much to the generativity of the event.

4. Decide how people will be grouped into hacking teams so you can prepare for the technology needs in advance

Hackathons are team sports. You can allow people to form their own teams in advance and join the hackathon as a team. You can assign teams randomly. You can allow people to meet one another and form teams themselves at the event. However you do it, though, make sure you have a clear and easy-to-understand method of forming hacking teams. Think about the technology that the teams will need and prepare it in advance so they can focus on the holidays hacks. In our hackathon, we created a large number of Zoom breakout rooms with names of various holidays such as Thanksgiving, Hanukkah, Winter Graduation, Christmas, Kwanzaa, New Years Eve, Boxing Day, Birthday, and so on. We asked attendees to self select into the holiday they wanted to hack as the mode of forming hack teams.

5. Set up a collaboration tool where all the hacks will be shared with the entire community

Hacking is a team sport, that’s true, but it’s more than that–it’s a community builder. One of the great things about participating in a hackathon is seeing all the different ideas that are created. As we mentioned above, you’ll need a method or a tool to make all the hacks visible and shared. The type of tool you need is determined by the type of hacks you are asking people to share. In our case, we wanted visual and descriptive content, so our padlet was an easy way to allow teams to create their own entry on a shared web board with the capability to add pictures, video, or other visual content as well as a description of the hack they had created. You can see all the hacks submitted to our community board here.

6. Engage in a little prosocial competition to build energy and fun into the hackathon by asking community members to pick their favorite “winning” hacks

Most hackathons offer prizes of some sort, whether that is simply recognition by the sponsors of the hackathon or something more. In this case, the pride of recognition by one’s peers is a strong motivator! You can create a friendly prosocial competition by asking cherished elders, hackers themselves, and community heroes to be a panel of judges. Each of the judges chooses one  “winning” holiday hack to highlight at the end of the hackathon. Give those winners a big round of videoconference applause!

Whether you use one of the holiday hacks from our hackathon or use this article to inspire your own hackathon, we hope the spirit of creativity brings more joy, meaning, and merriment into your holiday season. And if you’d like to learn more about hacking the science of thriving for your benefit all year round, please let us know by reaching out to May your celebrations be safe, healthy, and full of the kinds of moments that will foster your thriving all year through. Happy hacking!

Top photo: Kari Shea from Unsplash
Bottom photo: Olya Kobruseva from Pexels