I don’t know about you, but I’m always incredibly busy this time of year. Most of my clients operate on a calendar year that requires all projects to be completed and paid for by December 31. That means that just when everyone is starting to take days off to be with their families, I am crunching through long days to complete deliverables ahead of the deadline. Not that I’m complaining – I’d much rather be busy than the alternative – but it does mean that my head isn’t usually in the holiday spirit until right around Christmas Eve. Most of the time, I can point to a single moment when my mind took a turn and the holiday switch flipped in my brain. This year is no different.

Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer

Last night I watched the classic TV special “Rudolph the Red Nosed Reindeer.” The story tells of a young reindeer who is rejected by society because he has a “shiny nose.” You could insert just about any other term for “shiny nose” and have an after-school special for kids who “don’t fit in.” The story actually appeared first as a popular song, written by Johnny Marks and sung by Gene Autrie. Because he is different, Rudolph goes through the pain of rejection and loss before finding his way to fit in. It’s a sweet, ultimately hopeful story.

So why was I crying all the way through it?

I don’t consider myself particularly sentimental, so I found I was surprised and a little annoyed at my inability to control this sappy behavior. I thought to myself, “I’m so glad I’m watching this alone; I wouldn’t want anyone to see me crying like this over a silly TV show.”

How Happy and Sad Memories Get Mixed Together

This morning that sad, poignant feeling was still with me when I woke up. So, with a bit of perspective, I explored this phenomenon through the lens of neuroscience. Our memories are not stored in a single place in the brain. Neurons from multiple parts of our brain stitch together a memory, including sensual stimuli, such as sights, sounds and smells, related events, isolated bits of fact and our emotional response, all linked together. When something triggers a memory, these neurons fire together, recreating the remembered moment in your brain. We are transported back in time, sometimes without even being fully aware of it at the time.

Last night, the music from Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer reminded me of a Christmas long gone by. At 15, I considered myself “too old” to watch it for my own enjoyment, but I was introducing my three-year old sister to the show for the first time. Until recently, I would have classified this memory as a happy one. But two years ago, my “little” sister was diagnosed with Hodgkins Lymphoma. While I’m grateful and relieved that she is still with us, she is still fighting to save her life. My brain has rewired the happy memory to incorporate new information. The same music that once made me happy now makes me sad, at such a deep, profound level in my being that I couldn’t initially put words to the initial sorrow. Once I realized the source of my sadness, I was able to tease out the happy part of the memory and focus on that until a smile crept on my face. No matter what the future holds for her, I want to be able to remember that happy little girl singing “Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer” with me that night.

The longer you live on this earth, the more memories you collect and the greater the chance that you will have a mixture of happy and sad memories for the same set of stimuli. But we can rewire our brains, and restructure memories. We can choose to focus on the positive parts of a memory and, over time, convert sorrow to happiness.

Let’s make some happy memories this holiday season! Merry Christmas and happy holidays to you and yours!