As I clean up the remaining pieces of torn wrapping paper off the floor and unfasten envelops of well-received Christmas cards for display, I realize I am particularly enamored by the holiday season. Sure, there are stressors — unexpected guests, a forgotten dessert, anxieties about gift-giving, and a rather large mess to clean — but all in all, Christmas seems to be a time of year that’s merry and bright.
What makes it so?
In the paper "What Makes for a Merry Christmas?" published in the Journal of Happiness Studies, researchers set out to empirically discover, for the first time, just that. Interested in what people experience during the holiday season and how these experiences relate to their well-being, 117 randomly selected participants were recruited to fill in a series of questionnaires immediately following Christmas. Participants were asked questions which focus on well-being (including rating themselves on 21 moods, ranging from enthusiastic to sad), experiences (including how often they experienced activities in the domains of family, religion, tradition, spending money, receiving gifts, helping others, and enjoyment), use of money (how much they spent and the approximate value of goods they received), and consumption (if they had purchased certain items or made them, for instance).
In examining the results, the researchers found that roughly 75 percent of the participants had experienced substantial positive emotion during Christmas, while only less than 10 percent of the sample reported experiencing much negative emotion. The study sample also experienced more positive emotion during the Christmas season than what is generally felt other times of the year, while experiencing no less negative emotion. In other words, though we feel upset and sad regardless of the time of year, it seems that the holiday season brings about a more festive feeling than usual!
What two factors made a particular difference? Very "merry" individuals spent more time engaging in religious activity (which has been shown to increase well-being regardless of the time of year) and spending time with family — results which have also been found in three later studies of 1,098 participants focused on the impact of family rituals during the holidays.
Where does materialism come in to play? It seems that not only when spending money, but also when receiving gifts, according to the study, we tend to experience lower well-bring and satisfaction, with the exception of those people who engage in more environmentally friendly consumption. Perhaps a holiday cookie exchange might be worth considering in the future for both you and your guests’ happiness!
All in all, it seems what really matters from the perspective of well-being during the holiday season is what Andy Williams’ classic holiday jingle preached all along: Having "loved ones near" (family) and telling “tales of the glories of Christmases long, long ago” (religious activity) are, in fact, what make Christmas “the most wonderful time of the year.”
Kasser, T., & Sheldon, K. M. (2002). What makes for a merry Christmas?. Journal of Happiness Studies, 3(4), 313-329.
Sezer, O., Norton, M. I., Gino, F., & Vohs, K. D. (2016). Family rituals improve the holidays. Journal of the Association for Consumer Research, 1(4), 509-526.