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  • Katie Jefcoat

Why Christmas Activities Make Us Happy in 2023

Updated: Nov 27, 2023

Woman reading with hot cocoa, a candy cane, and an ornament in her hand.

Have you ever wondered why almost everyone, except those scourges out there, seems to be automatically happier during the holidays? With all the stress of shopping, the perils of winter weather, and sometimes spending way too much time with the in-laws, you would think people wouldn’t be so joyous…yet everyone seems to be more merry than usual. I find the joy of the holiday season to be fascinating. I’ll be honest: Christmas is my favorite holiday, but today, we discuss how it works on a more scientific level to understand why Christmas activities make us happy.

Associated Emotion Training During the Holidays

Psychology Today stated, “At Christmas, you feel joy because you associate good things with the holiday.” Like any other associative feeling, when you teach the brain that a particular trigger equates to a specific emotion, your brain will automatically respond similarly when that trigger is pulled again. This can be both good and bad.

A sad example is someone who hates Mondays because they have to return to a job they hate. On a happier note, if Christmas was always associated with good feelings throughout your childhood, Christmastime, in general, will elicit those same feelings year after year.

To see if this idea was accurate, an experiment was performed in 2015 by Danish researcher Brad Haddock. The study examined two groups of people: one who celebrated Christmas and another who didn’t. The study showed images of Christmas to both groups; unsurprisingly, the ones who celebrated Christmas showed greater neural activity in their brain scan than those who didn’t. Whether you want to call it the Christmas Spirit, holiday cheer, or simply associated happiness is up to you, but science suggests it is present.

I can even see it in myself. I don’t know about you, but there is something about twinkle lights that makes my heart dance a little. These associated images come into play in other areas, too. For example, I absolutely adore matching family jammies - I plan for them, look at them, think about them year after year, and I love looking back at the photos in delight. It makes me so happy, and I had no idea why until now!

This idea got me thinking, and I have a few hypotheses on why Christmas time creates these consistent feelings of happiness that forge such associated neural pathways. Let’s dive into a few concepts.

4 Theories on Why Christmas Activities Make Us Happy

Ritual Practices

Classic Christmas activities - Children baking Christmas cookies

A consistent ritual is preached, crossing varying fields of science, to improve your health and boost your mood. It can be as simple as a morning family meeting, Wednesday date nights, or doing yoga at 4 pm sharp every day. On a larger scale, Christmas is just one big ritual comprising a bunch of little rituals.

We see it in all of our Christmas activities, such as trimming the tree, wrapping presents with your spouse on Christmas Eve, attending Christmas morning church, eating your favorite holiday quiche, and so much more. Every family has its own set of rituals, and new families enjoy combining and creating new traditions together. Like I said earlier, matching jammies is one of my favorite family rituals!

These rituals provide people with something to look forward to, much like a vacation, and the anticipation of the event creates just as much happiness as the event itself. Piling them all together, there is much to look forward to and enjoy!

Forging Social Connection

family playing together by a Christmas tree

In my podcast and here on this blog, we frequently talk about how vital social connections are to one’s happiness. Study after study has shown that building, maintaining, and celebrating our bonds in life are crucial to our happiness. Christmas is a dedicated time to connect with others, whether friends, family, neighbors, coworkers, or even strangers.

The sheer amount of holiday activities most people attend is astounding. We are talking Christmas parties, work events, church gatherings, dinners with friends, gift-giving with loved ones, volunteering in the community, and so much more. Sometimes, it can feel overwhelming, but this time that is expected to be with others truly benefits our happiness.

Preparing a box of toys to give away

Charitable Giving

Christmas is the season of generosity. As I’ve mentioned before, charitable giving provides exponential benefits to everyone involved. Those who give feel a helper’s high, those who receive feel gratitude, and those who witness such acts feel more compelled to give themselves.

While I won’t go into the nitty gritty details right now, you can discover why charitable giving makes us happy by tuning into episode 464 or reading my blog on it!

Woman giving a gift to a homeless man

Random Acts of Kindness

Similar to charitable giving, the last theory I want to discuss concerning happiness and holiday cheer is random acts of kindness. This is the time of year when people lower their walls, open their eyes to the people around them, and make more effort to make others happy.

I adore this time of year because we often see and hear about incredible random acts of kindness. Whether buying the person in line behind you a cup of coffee, sending a Christmas card in the mail to a friend who wasn’t expecting it, buying a Christmas gift for an elderly neighbor, or leaving a stellar review for your favorite podcasters (winky face), the list goes on and on. Whether recognized or not, acts of kindness performed with the mentality that they will get nothing in return improves the physical, emotional, and mental health of the one promoting the act.

Get Ready to Get Smacked with Christmas Cheer

Christmas is fast approaching, and with it, I have two recommendations on improving your happiness and those around you.

1. Make Time for Happiness

During this joyous season, I encourage you to dedicate time to the theories above: executing ritual practices, forging social connections, performing charitable giving, and completing random acts of kindness. Whether this means taking a couple of days off of work, skipping a party to spend more time with your family, or whatever allows you the time to do the things that matter most to you and yours, make it happen. Through Intentional Margins and appropriate time management, you can do all the stuff at the top of your priority list.

2. Try Not to Get Brought Down by Expectations

Yes, Christmas can be amazing, but I caution everyone to be realistic about it. Holidays can often get bogged down by expectations. Everyone wants the perfect Christmas, but perfection is rarely a guarantee. There will likely be family drama, impossible-to-find gifts, unexpected situations, and other happenstances that could ruin the holiday season if you let them.

One of my teammates is the perfect example of this. Her self-proclaimed “family curse” is that something terrible happens on almost every holiday, and she isn’t being dramatic. She can recount deaths, accidents, and other horrible situations that always seem to occur on a major holiday every single year, going back for a decade in her family. However, she doesn’t let it get her down. She says that such tragedies have allowed herself and her family to become more adaptive during the holidays and to truly appreciate every moment with loved ones. They have no glitter shield, but that clarity makes the happy moments even more special.

So, with that in mind, I suggest that everyone practice accepting internally that things will not go according to plan, adapt as best they can when they happen, allow negative emotions to roll off your back, and remember what the season is all about for you.

Until next time, Happy Holidays from all of us at Everyday Happiness.

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