Holiday blue? NOT!

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Your darkest secret…

Forget that secret childhood crush, forget those teenage indiscretions you posted on Facebook and cannot escape.

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Family in 1970s open presents, 5 kids and 3 adults sit on the floor, 2 older adults sit in chair watching

President Jimmy Carter and family, 1978, U.S. National Archives and Records Administration
If this is your image of the ideal Christmas, you may be setting yourself up for disappointment…

Is this your deepest secret — that you actually look forward to the holidays?

Lucky you. For the rest of us, we’re stuck on those holiday-stress media fretlines: over-drinking, under-sleeping and indecent exposure to idiotic in-laws.

Not to mention getting mauled at the mall.

These “Beware: awful-holidays ahead” warnings make little sense to us. Sure, there’s relentless pressure to consume — material goods, foods and alcohol alike. And even if the buy! pressure has intensified (did 24/7 coverage of Black Friday mean it was more important than killing Osama Bin Laden?), those holiday-stress headlines are nothing new.

And if the holidays are so horrid, why do we still have them?

In other words, what have Christmas, Hanukah and New Year’s and Kwanzaa done for us lately?

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View of busy store floor from above, crowds of people swarm around jewelry displays, red bows hang from pillars

Your eighth trip to the mall? No wonder the holiday give-give-give routine stresses you out!

Maybe not so awful after all?

Because holidays are not (yet?) considered psychological disorders, they get less study than, say, post-traumatic stress disorder or autism. Still, The Why Files rounded up some experts — mainly positive psychologists — to discuss the upside of the holidays.

google search for managing holiday stress

Holidays can be a spur to beneficial changes, says Robert McGrath, coordinator of student mind/body wellness services at the University of Wisconsin-Madison.  “The disruption to routine that they create can serve as an opportunity to change.  For example, if you’ve been meaning to catch up with a friend for months, the holidays may help bring that deeper priority to the surface.”

The tradition of cooking and distributing sweets can serve as an excuse to walk over to see neighbors we always intend to visit. And New Years resolutions can become a socially sanctioned reason to make beneficial changes to diet, exercise, social involvement or volunteerism.

Rituals, religious and otherwise

However, much of the power of holidays is embodied in things that don’t change, says Lee Ann de Reus, an associate professor of human development and family studies at Penn State University in Altoona. “One thing we know about healthy families is that they incorporate rituals, and that certainly comes with holidays, no matter what your tradition.”

Google search: Don't let stress, overeating...

Rituals, she says, can range all over the map, from attending religious services like midnight mass to holding ceremonial feasts at the same house, or eating the same foods, prepared by the same family cooks.

De Reus solicits examples from her students, and says, “Some open all their gifts on Christmas eve, some open one on Christmas eve and everything else next morning. Families may have traditions about who they invite for Hanukah or who takes part in ceremonies around the dinner table.”

Many traditions are unique and whimsical, de Reus adds. “In one family, everybody gets a new set of pajamas, and wears them to open gifts. They may watch a specific film or stay up all night playing Trivial Pursuit. And a lot of traditions revolve around food preparation.”

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House on steep hill is decked with giant stockings and stuffed animals, huge adjacent tree is laden with decorations and giant gifts

Photo: San Francisco Goodshoped35110s
Outlandish Christmas displays, like other forms of competitive spending, invites comparisons that obliterate the nurturing aspects of the holidays.

Reading ritual

Rituals are not just about repetition, de Reus says. “We know that ritual gives multiple things. It’s a way to transmit values, it’s a way to reconnect in a meaningful way, and it brings families together, even families that don’t necessarily get along outside the holidays.”

After a divorce, she says, tradition can temporarily trump animosity. “The parents may put their differences aside; they may come together for the sake of the children.”

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Half dozen menorahs with candles lit sit on kitchen counter, 3 adults and 2 children stand around counter

Photo: Raz Barnea
Hanukah is the festival of lights, a home ritual that combines light and togetherness.

College students from families that have split up “often can work it out, spending Christmas eve with one part of the family, and Christmas day with the other part,” says McGrath “But when it has not been worked out, they must choose to be with one parent, and the other one can feel very hurt.”

Ritual also provides a chance for a family to reconnect with its history, de Reus says. “If I ask college age students about their favorite memories about growing up, you can bet the majority are going to talk about some sort of event, memory, probably involving a ritual, often around a holiday or a birthday.”

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Mother and toddler daughter decorate a gingerbread house

Photo: Hubert K
Construction projects like this gingerbread house are a great family-bonding ritual during Christmas.

Ritual, de Reus says, “tells us what are we about, helps a family to regain its center. Maybe they have strayed from these values, are too caught up in consumerism, materialism. It takes an assertive parent to push back against the larger societal pressures that exist around holidays: drinking, overindulgence, mass consumerism. I think we totally underestimate the value and importance of ritual in family life.”

Total togetherness

Holidays bring together many of the most important people in our lives, and, as McGrath points out, researchers regularly find a strong relationship between happiness and time with family and friends, “especially if the gathering is for positive reasons rather than to deal with problems. In terms of the positive experience, just being with people is the key. I don’t know that people come back from the holidays and say, ‘I did not get a good present.'”

The good-will that comes from these gatherings need not end with the holidays, McGrath says. “A positive note is to realize that you can enjoy those same activities daily: eat meals mindfully and enjoy them, have fun with friends and family, share stories, and practice giving often.”

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Young girl gives big hug and kiss on the cheek to a large, older man

Spending time with our most important people may be the cardinal benefit of the holidays.

What do you expect?

Part of the holiday-blues problem may exist in excessive expectations, says Leaf Van Boven, an associate professor of psychology at the University of Colorado. “There are very clear cultural stereotypes for what ought to happen at the holidays, for how people will behave, for gifts that will be exchanged. For most people, the holidays don’t meet that expectation, so there can be a sense of disappointment, but that is very different from saying we don’t actually enjoy ourselves.”

Google search: relationships...holiday stress

And while holidays can be times of reduced stress, “That’s not to say no stress, which is often the expectation,” says Van Boven. “For most people, holidays involve spending time with close others, family and friends.” Sure, those relationships can carry their own challenges, “but most people enjoy spending time with friends and family more than they do spending time at work.”

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A pile of brightly wrapped gifts lay at the base of a tree decorated with red ribbons and gold ornaments

Photo: Kelvin Kay
Is your pile as big as his pile? (Hint: It better be… or you’ll be disappointed!)

Money can’t buy me love

The pressure to buy, Buy! BUY!! can be a major source of holiday stress, but a growing body of evidence shows that ’tis truly “better to give than to receive.” In a 2008 study, Elizabeth Dunn, an assistant professor of psychology at the University of British Columbia, gave college students either $5 or $20, and directed them to spend it on themselves, or on a charitable donation or a gift by 5 p.m.

That night, the students who gave away the money reported a higher level of happiness, and the real kicker was being with the beneficiary, Dunn adds. “We did not say you have to give it and walk away. A lot of people took a friend for lunch or bought a toy for a younger sibling.”

The curious thing is that this preference does not operate at the conscious level, Dunn says. Most people think that it make them happier to receive $20 to spend on themselves, she says. “It’s not that they love to give, but when we give them those amounts to spend on someone else, they are more happy.”

For a 2010 study,1 Dunn put players through a game that allowed them to donate money to another player, and found that the stingy players had less positive emotions, more negative emotions, and higher levels of both shame and stress hormones.

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Black and white image of toddler boy playing accordion and baby sitting in wagon in front of Christmas tree

“1928, Christmas at our home north of Worthington, Ohio, Photo lighting was flash powder.” Don O’Brien
Not sure about the boy in the wagon, but the fellow on the right seems happy to receive! Anyone else recognize the Tinker Toy tower at left?

Not so bad after all?

If we’re getting the picture that giving reasonable gifts and hanging out with friends and family make the holidays less painful than medieval dentistry, that’s the message we got from a rare study of Christmas happiness. In 2002, Tim Kasser of Knox College (Illinois) found that a 57 percent of a small sample said Christmas was not stressful.

That, Kasser told us by email, is still a “reasonably high level of stress … around the midpoint of the scale.” Women and people who focused on spending had higher levels of stress.

Yet Christmas may still be “merry,” Kasser wrote. “While levels of life satisfaction and negative emotions were more or less the same as what people report at other times of the year, people do report somewhat higher levels of pleasant emotions during Xmas.”

The study2 found more satisfaction among people who focused on family time and took part in religious activities, and less among those who focused on consumption.

“It seems that connecting with others and with something ‘bigger than yourself’ promotes higher levels of well-being; that’s consistent with past research, as is the finding the materialism undermines well-being,” Kasser wrote. “It is not much fun to be fighting the crowds and most research shows that shopping is rarely an inherently engaging and interesting activity.”

(You’ve got to) Accentuate the positive

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3 women and two men stand at small table and light candles on menorahs, more people stand behind them

Rituals can cement the ties that make life meaningful, as when friends light Hanukah candles.

All of these observations seem to explain why the winter holidays have survived the headlines about holiday horrors. “The big three holidays are good ways of maximizing those things that we tend find most enjoyable, and probably go a long way toward explaining why they are so powerful emotionally, why they persist,” says Van Boven.

One way to cut holiday stress, Van Boven says, “Is to think about what we value in the holidays, what really matters, and then try to behave in way that reflects those values. Often that kind of exercise can be extremely transformative, will get you out of the gift-giving rat race, and more toward the development of social engagement.”

Dunn adds that giving can be more emotionally satisfying when it involves personal contact. “When you have the opportunity to give so you can see the positive impact, that’s when the potential happiness benefit of Christmas giving is greatest. If your mother-in-law loves pedicures, you could buy her a gift certificate, but I think the research shows that it’s better to make the appointment and go with her. That’s the critical piece. If you can turn the gift into an opportunity for social connection, that’s going to maximize the benefit.”

– David J. Tenenbaum
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Terry Devitt, editor; S.V. Medaris, designer/illustrator; Jenny Seifert, project assistant; David J. Tenenbaum, feature writer; Amy Toburen, content development executive

Bibliography

  1. On the Costs of Self-interested Economic Behavior: How Does Stinginess Get Under the Skin? Elizabeth Dunn et al, Journal of Health Psychology, vol 15(4) 627–633
  2. What Makes For A Merry Christmas? Tim Kasser and Kennon M. Sheldon, Journal of Happiness Studies 3: 313–329, 2002
  3. Christmas on the brain.
  4. Manage your holiday stress.
  5. More tips to avoid holiday stress.
  6. Forgiveness and holiday happiness.
  7. Giving is the secret to happiness.
  8. Video: happiness and money.
  9. Spend away your happiness.
  10. Video: the high price of materialism.
  11. Podcast: holiday traditions that foster happiness.
  12. Cultivate happiness in the season of spending.