Donnie Wahlberg’s Surprising (And Inspiring) Trick to Alleviate Holiday Stress

Plus, his trick to better focus, and why he’s not making resolutions.

Getty Images
Getty Images

As we approach the holidays, we need a “Step by Step” approach to beat holiday stressors. And there’s no better person at “Hanging Toughthan Donnie Wahlberg.  The Boston-born singer gained fame as a member of the 1980s pop group New Kids on the Block, who reunited in 2008 and now perform sold out tours across the U.S. 

The eighth of nine children, Wahlberg opens up to Thrive about his upbringing, and how that’s influenced who he is now. “When I think about it now, I realize how hard it was, but back then we never even realized it,” he says of his childhood. “We thought everyone had all these kids, everyone lived like this.” Given his own experience growing up, Wahlberg is passionate about his work with Heroes and Helpers, providing holiday gifts for families in need.  The organization pairs first responders with kids to buy holiday gifts for their families. “I was one of those children who’d benefit from Heroes and Helpers,” he admits. “I grew up in a really underserved household, really poor, and didn’t have a lot. The holidays are a big time for me and my family,  but we also didn’t often get the gifts we wanted because we couldn’t afford it.” Now, Wahlberg is practicing giving as self-care — and he tells Thrive about the experience. 

Thrive Global: Tell us a little about working with Heroes and Helpers.

Donnie Wahlberg: I wanted to get involved with Heroes and Helpers because it really is the true essence of who I am in my life’s journey, and the kind of charitable event that I want to be a part of. For the last decade, I’ve worked closely with first responders and law enforcement, and seen how important it is for them to give back and build bridges in the community. So there’s really nothing better that I could be a part of. Its short-term goal is bringing joy to children and families at the holiday season, and its long-term goal, which will have lasting impacts for generations to come, is to build bridges and relationships and stronger community between first responders and people in the community. That’s imperative.

Donnie Wahlberg helps Target celebrate 10 years of its Heroes & Helpers program in Edgewater, N.J. 

TG:  You speak of gratitude often. How do you practice it in your daily life? 

DW: Every single day, no matter what I feel like, the moment that I wake up, I try to bring myself back to gratitude. So if I wake up and my back hurts, or I’m tired, or I have a big event that day, or I’m stressed out, or I’m worried about something, or I don’t feel good before I do anything — I just try to clear all the thoughts out of my head and take a moment to be thankful for where I am, and that I’m actually breathing oxygen and have another day to try and live my best life.

TG: The holidays can be a stressful time. What causes you stress and what are some of the ways you alleviate that?

DW: I alleviate my stress by not allowing it to enter my mind in the first place. In my opinion, stress is just a thought, or a collection of thoughts unmanaged. I try not to judge situations – I just take them as they come. Gratitude is another way to avoid stress. If you’re irritated by so many relatives being over at the house, or their kids running around screaming, take a moment to be grateful that they’re there, because there could be another version of life where they’re not there. That changes your mindset. People come and go in our lives so quickly; we lose loved ones that are dear to us so often that if we take a moment to be grateful, we’ll be much less annoyed or stressed out by their idiosyncrasies or politics or whatever it is that’s troubling us.

TG: What are your holiday traditions?

DW: Jenny and I obviously love having Christmas with our kids and our blended family in St. Charles. Celebrating New Year’s together in a fun way has become a tradition. The very first time we said hello to each other was on New Year’s Eve in 2010, when New Kids on the Block was performing with the Backstreet Boys. It was the first time I performed on New Year’s Eve, and Jenny was hosting for the first time. On my way to do the countdown with Ryan Seacrest, I saw Jenny standing there, and she said, “Hi,” I said “Hi,” and that was it.  In some way or another — whether I am watching her on TV or kissing her on TV — we spend New Year’s together. We’re going to celebrate it this year not on TV, but we’re going to be together and feeling just as giddy as we did the very first time.

Tell us about a small change you have made in your life to improve your focus.

DW: The best way that I’ve learned to focus is to not get so stressed about focusing. As a young actor 20 years ago, when I would get a movie role, I would be so entrenched in that role that I would never allow myself the freedom to detach from the project.  I remember when I performed in The Sixth Sense, I literally spent six weeks starving myself and practicing my dialogue. I was treating every movie role that way —  studying my lines for six months, and constantly overthinking it. I think in hindsight, what I eventually learned by detaching and giving myself some time away, is that this actually makes it fresh. 

Do the work, do the preparation, but don’t think about it 24 hours a day. You have to be able to disconnect from something to give yourself the energy and strength to focus on it when you need to. Don’t let it overwhelm you, because it when it does, you inevitably can’t focus on it because you’ve left other things unattended to, and they’ll eventually catch up to you. A few hours of furious focus is better than 24 hours of partial and distracted focus when you also need to give time and attention to other things in life. 

You are happily married, and life can be really overwhelming. How do you and your wife divide or systemize owning so one person isn’t doing more?

DW: The way that Jenny and I do it is we make a commitment to meet each other. We mentally and spiritually meet each other in the middle. If somebody’s having a bad day or a struggle, we count on the other person to “hold the light,” we say — to stay in a positive space. We are patient through the other person’s struggle, and try to not get swept up in anything negative ourselves like insecurity or fear. We know that something bigger is going on than just a momentary struggle. 

In terms of gift giving and responsibilities, we really are just there for each other. We each do our part in different ways, and we acknowledge each other’s efforts. If Jenny is there to help my son, then I acknowledge that, and I make sure that I’m there for her son. We acknowledge each other about that stuff and talk about it, and we don’t let little things go unnoticed. We acknowledge each other and stay connected.

I’m going back to how we met. We make sure to connect and stay close to love. It really helps guide everything we do. If I wake up in the morning and have gratitude, I tell her I love her before I do anything.  I’m going to be much more mindful of her inherently by connecting with her. I may get up and let the dogs out while she rests, because I can tell she’s a little more tired, and she then may say, “You got up early and let the dogs out, so I’m going to go make breakfast.” We just sort of always pick each other up and always stay mindful of each other. I think that’s how we approach everything. Sometimes we do delegate certain things, but generally speaking, we just always try to meet each other in a place of love and respect, and it all sorts itself out.

What are your resolutions for 2020? 

DW: I’m not really a New Year’s resolution guy. I’m going to say that’s my resolution for 2020: no resolution. Most people announce their New Year’s resolution, and it becomes a countdown, or they’re counting days, and they put this unnecessary pressure on themselves not to blow it. In fact, my resolution will be no resolution, and if I commit to doing something and I stumble or fall or don’t make it perfectly, I will forgive myself, and carry on just doing the best I can.

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