How to have a happy holiday

Christmas Eve day is a time to, depending on your personal inclination and circumstances, hit the stores in a last-minute shopping rush, welcome the arrival of family from far-flung corners, attend a midnight mass, anticipate the presents you will unwrap in a flurry of torn paper, or volunteer your time for those in need. Some of these activities are better for your well-being and ultimate satisfaction with your Christmas experience than others.

Americans firmly believe in the pursuit of happiness, and so there is a Journal of Happiness Studies. Within that journal, back in 2002, a pair of psychologists reported that how people spent their Christmas season (defined as December 12th through 27th) influenced their “Christmas Well-Being” – how much stress, positive feeling, negative feeling, and satisfaction they felt as they looked back a few days or weeks to December, 2001.

People who reported more of a focus on material aspects of Christmas – whether it was spending money, wrapping the presents, or even receiving gifts – reported less well-being: they reported more negative emotions, more stress, fewer positive emotions, and less satisfaction with their holiday. This was true event when they reported a lot of receiving high-value gifts. And they may say that ‘tis better to give than to receive, but spending a lot of money on gifts didn’t mean anything for self-reported well-being – although giving to charities was a little bit of a boost. Turns out neither giving nor receiving made for the best holiday.

"Christmas Wrapping" from Used under Creative Commons License.

“Christmas Wrapping” from Used under Creative Commons License.

On the other hand, people who reported a lot of focus on the family or religious aspects of the holiday reported more satisfaction and overall well-being with their holiday. No one took into account how much anyone actually liked spending time with their family (there were surely some horrible in-law experiences in there somewhere), but on the whole people who did spend that time with family or at services were happier and more satisfied. It didn’t seem to matter if people were following particular holiday traditions or helping those in need – just family and spirit.

It may seem like the kind of no-brainer that doesn’t need any scientific backing…but given the Black Friday horror stories, the crowds potentially fighting over that last toy in the days before Christmas, the people hoping for that perfect gift under the tree…somehow the message of this study doesn’t seem to have gotten through in the past decade. That, or we are a country of masochists.

To be fair, there are a lot of caveats to consider before buying into these findings. The people in question were primarily (87%) White, and although the age rang extended all the way up to 80 years old over a third of them were college students (who have a very different experience of the holidays than full-time workers or parents juggling school activities). And of course, this is just those people who felt well enough (or bitter enough) after the holiday to report on their feelings, about 20% of the people who were sent surveys.

Still, I have to wonder why something that seems so much like common sense and has a scientific study backing it up has not permeated the popular culture – why people do still focus on buying lots of presents and receiving lots of presents, and get so wrapped up in what they want to give and wrapping it so well (which, it turns out, might just make people expect more out of their gift) even though it doesn’t seem to contribute to their own happiness. Perhaps there’s something I’m missing…perhaps I’ll puzzle it over with my father as we enjoy spiced cider and Scrabble tonight.
Kasser, T., & Sheldon, K. M. (2002). What makes for a merry Christmas? Journal of Happiness Studies, 3, 313-329


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