Christmas is winding down here, and I just about squeezed myself into my office this afternoon following the excess of the past week or so. 

Writing about the psychological impact of Christmas and the festive season is something I have meant to do for a few years now, yet I’ve stopped myself in the previous couple of years due to the initial findings of exploring the psychological scientific literature. Initially it makes for pretty discouraging reading…..

Two large reviews (Friedberg, 1990; Sansone & Sansone, 2011) indicate Christmas holidays tend to result in an increase in certain types of psychopathology; worsening of mood and alcohol related fatalities in particular. They do also suggest that there is an overall decrease in such issues just before Christmas, but the opposite is true following Christmas and these issues tend to increase just after Christmas. Upon reading these reviews, you might end up buying in to some of the urban legends that suggest Christmas is bad for mental health in general. If you look closer at these two reviews though, they also indicate that during Christmas psychiatric patients use emergency rooms less and there is a decrease in behaviours such as self-harm. So I decided to delve deeper and thought I’d report back here on my favourite studies of Christmas psychology that aim to show you how much of a tonic Christmas can be for your mental health for a number of reasons.

Christmas is the spirit of giving without a thought of getting. It is happiness because we see joy in people. It is forgetting self and finding time for others. It is discarding the meaningless and stressing the true values” – Thomas S. Monson.

For many, Christmas is a religious celebration that involves celebrating the birth of the Lord Jesus Christ. The good news for those people is that a 2002 study that featured in the Journal of Happiness studies entitled What Makes for a Merry Christmas? suggests that family and religious experiences are associated with more happiness during holidays.

Can we benefit from Christmas without being religious? There is strong research, such as the 2012 Holiday Health Experiment carried out by Nuffield Health and Kuoni that suggests simply taking holiday time is good for our health. Christmas is still a time when people all over the world celebrate and enjoy time together as individuals, families, and communities. For many, Christmas is the most wonderful time of the year, for others, it is less so. Today, I want to focus on what the psychological benefits of Christmas really are.

“Christmas isn’t a season. It’s a feeling” ~ Edna Ferber

Giving back:
Lots of people struggle to meet others or to deepen their connections with friends, significant others and family. One such way to strengthen connections is by being altruistic, which means helping others or doing good without focusing on recognition or reward for yourself. There is evidence that suggests spending money on others promotes happiness.

Christmas holiday season presents many opportunities to be altruistic beyond gift giving or spending money on others.
Altruism does not need to be a grand gesture for it to have a meaning. A single loving action like this towards another person can suddenly remind us of who we are, what we believe in love and the importance of love and kindness.

This year, I’ve seen wonderful people choosing to invite a homeless stranger for Christmas lunch and others choosing to work in a charity kitchen on Christmas Day. You may give out socks or blankets to homeless people as some friends of mine did here in my hometown. A donation of goodwill is a wonderful thing.

Research suggests that people who are more altruistic receive all sorts of physical and mental health benefits. Altruistic individuals have better life adjustment overall and tend to see life as more meaningful. In addition, altruism is associated with better interpersonal relationships, a decreased sense of hopelessness and stress, less depression, increased physical health and enhanced self-esteem. So, during holiday seasons, looking for ways to increase social connections in addition to being altruistic will benefit you greatly.

Christmas Music as a booster:
“I don’t sing because I’m happy; I’m happy because I sing.” – William James. 

Singing makes us happy. It has other benefits too. 

The physical act of singing may boost your respiratory health too. According to Swedish research, singing helps to control our breathing and regulate our heartbeat and pulse. Warbling alone is good, but singing in a choir is even better according to this 2011 study.

The benefits are similar to yogic breathing, which has a beneficial effect on blood pressure. A study for the annual Sing for your Heart campaign by Heart Research UK found singing is a “great aerobic exercise, giving your heart and lungs a fantastic workout”. 

Christmas presents us with a lot of opportunity to sing; with others, alone, while partying or at a Carol service. Using the opportunities to sing that are plentiful at Christmas will bring you joy!

A lot of laughter is on the cards:
Christmas promotes laughter. A time of festive cheer means we have lots of opportunities to laugh, and I have written before on the health benefits of laughter: The Science of Laughter: Why Laughing is Really Good for Your Health.

It is healthy to make Christmas full of laughter. It can be compared to a mild workout, as it exercises the muscles, gets the blood flowing, decreases blood pressure and stress hormones, improves sleep patterns and boosts the immune system. Furthermore, a study by the John Hopkins University Medical School showed that humor and laughter can also improve memory and mental performance. Yet many of us forget to even crack a smile every once in a while, let alone laugh. You may have to make sure that your only source of festive cheer is not the jokes inside of Christmas crackers though!

Feel good hormone:
Studies show that when we give and receive gifts, the brain releases feel good chemical dopamine. Giving also releases the “cuddle” hormone oxytocin…

And while writing and posting cards might seem like a chore, it’s a chance to boost charity coffers. Research suggests that those who give and receive gifts during holidays produce far greater levels of dopamine, oxytocin, and endorphins the ‘feel-good’ hormones which are vital and highly beneficial to our mental well-being.

Making mentally sharper and more creative:
If your mind is emotionally exhausted, you probably won’t be functioning at your best. Just like when you do work you need to take breaks regularly in order to remain productive, you also need prolonged breaks where you can properly rest.

Having a break and/or holiday can give you a fresh wave of motivation and the strength to keep your life moving forward when you return. It’s not surprising that holidays help us de-stress because we do things that give us pleasure and distract our mind. It provides a much-needed break from hectic lifestyles, which in turn, makes us mentally sharper.

Feeling connected:
The average family manages just 36 minutes of quality time together a day, according to recent research, with hectic work schedules and domestic chores leaving little time for family fun.

Yet a separate poll reveals 95% of parents believe the key to happiness lies in spending quality family time together. Disconnection and isolation are the enemies of happiness. Christmas gives us a sense of belonging.

For a more in-depth look at the research relating to this point, go and have a read of this article, The Importance of Quality Family Time.

Christmas Decorating:
It’s no secret that we all feel a bit warm and fuzzy inside when we’re surrounded by the twinkling lights and glimmering baubles on our Christmas tree.

Holiday decorating done right can help to prevent family conflicts by putting you and yours in the right mood, experts said. The colour schemes and decor of the season tend to lift spirits and create an evolutionary sense of comfort according to Chicago environmental and design psychologist Dr Sally Augustin.

In addition, a study out of Kansas State University found that real Christmas trees protect you from the cold and flu. The scent of pine has been found to protect against sinus infections and boosts the immune system.

Eating together:
Less than half of families sit down at the dinner table together at mealtimes, research has found. A total of 14% never do, opting instead to eat in front of the TV. Yet, thankfully, sitting down to Christmas dinner is one tradition 88% of families are holding on to.
Researchers at Rutgers University in New Jersey, found families who regularly eat dinner together at home benefit in many different ways, from less obesity, as you pay more attention to what you’re eating, to happier mental states.

The study found that it’s not just the time and eating together that matters, but the nature of the interactions. Families who spent time watching TV together or eating fast food outside the home had a poorer dietary intake. Christmas and other such holidays give us a chance to sit down, eat together and start to build that habit regularly. 

Finally, in one study I read, participants were surveyed and asked why we persist in promoting the myth of Santa – with the survey indicating that like the myth and magic it presents and how it makes things feel ‘special’ – all of that said, I can confirm that my wife, children and I spotted Santa overhead this year and he is real alright….. We had some help knowing when to look for him; This is when you can spot ‘Santa’s sleigh’ in the sky this Christmas.

So, let’s take the festival back to its roots and take advantage of the many opportunities it can present for our wellbeing. I hope you’ve had a great time, I’ll be back in the New Year; next week!

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