Experts say holiday cheer and the Christmas spirit are real — here’s the evidence

Santa Claus at the end of the Macy's Thanksgiving Day parade.

caption
Santa Claus at the end of the Macy’s Thanksgiving Day parade.
source
Andrew Burton/ Getty

  • Around the holidays, many people report feeling happier and say that they are in the “holiday spirit.”

  • Researchers found that the brain responds positively to holiday-themed images.

  • Psychologists say nostalgic memories from our childhood also play a role in proving the “holiday spirit’s” validity.

Save for the occasional Scrooge, most of us look forward to the holiday season. As colorful lights begin to line the streets and stores become crowded with holiday shoppers, we start referring to the “Christmas spirit” and “holiday cheer.”

But are we actually happier during the holidays or are we just dazzled by the décor? Some researchers and psychologists think there is proof that holiday cheer is real.

For starters, take a look at the following picture. How does this image make you feel?

How does this image make you feel?

caption
How does this image make you feel?
source
Sean Gallup/Getty Images

If you felt happier or maybe even joyful, then scientists claim that is evidence of holiday cheer. Researchers believe there is proof that we are, in fact, happier around the holidays because we can get joyful by just looking at pictures that depict holiday themes.

In a 2015 experiment, Denmark researcher Brad Haddock showed two groups of people – those who celebrate Christmas and those who don’t – images of holiday themes as they underwent a brain scan. The front of the brain lit up for those who celebrated Christmas as the holiday images flashed before their eyes, proving that there is a “holiday spirit network” in the brain.

“Happiness is something that is definitely difficult to measure quantitatively,” Haddock told INSIDER. “[But] the study does fit with the idea that thinking about something can elicit an associated response, because it was a response to images of Christmas, not really Christmas, that we used as a stimulus.”

In other words, just thinking about the holidays or seeing festive imagery has a positive influence on our emotions. This is especially true for those who celebrate Christmas and associate happy memories with the holiday.

Read more: The most iconic toys from every year of your childhood

Some stores try to tap into this innate happiness by playing Christmas music earlier and earlier in the year. The strategy is that if you hear the music while shopping, it will trigger positive emotions, prompting you to buy more.

Likewise, there is proof that people who put up Christmas decorations early are happier than those who don’t.

“In a world full of stress and anxiety people like to associate to things that make them happy, and Christmas decorations evoke those strong feelings of the childhood,” psychoanalyst Steve McKeown told Unilad. Apparently, holiday decorating brings up feelings of nostalgia, whether it be reliving childhood magic or compensating for past neglect.

Dr. Patrick Keelan, a psychologist in Canada, told INSIDER that the reason for cheerfulness around the holidays goes beyond just decorations and imagery. In fact, he said people feel happy because it’s a time that emphasizes family bonding.

“Holidays allow for many people to have more enjoyable social interactions with friends and family, and positive social interaction is a robust predictor of better happiness,” he said. Dr. Keelan goes on to explain that some also feel cheerful around the holidays because it’s a time to celebrate religion and spirituality.

On the other hand, psychologist Dr. Pamela Rutledge told INSIDER that holiday cheer “isn’t a guarantee.” While most look forward to family time and gifts, others who don’t have a close family are often bogged down by what the holidays are “supposed” to look like.

“The holidays often create unrealistic standards about what the holidays should ‘be like,’ and that can amplify feelings of anxiety and depression,” Dr. Rutledge said.

She explains that for those who don’t feel an innate holiday spirit, they should adjust their expectations and try to focus and appreciate what they have.

Visit INSIDER’s homepage for more.