Are we happier at Christmas? Notes from a researcher in happiness

It can be the busiest time of year, but if you try too hard to please others you could miss the whole point, says PhD Dean, Ivo Ponocny


By Dr Ivo Ponocny
Dean of the PhD in Business and Socioeconomic Sciences at MODUL University Vienna

Some love it, some hate it. Is Christmas the highlight of the year, or rather the perfect time for a long-distance trip as far away from the seasonal madness as possible?

Surprisingly, serious science into happiness hasn‘t dealt too much with this issue, with just a few studies producing diverging results. The most recent (Mutz, 2016, based on the European Social Survey) sheds a rather disillusioning light on Christmas time, showing a decrease in emotional happiness, particularly for people with materialist or consumerist views on the festivities (as opposed to those focusing on their family or religious aspects).

What we know for sure is the time before and after Christmas is high season for depression, psychological crisis within families, and interventions. However, on the positive side it is the time for loved ones, receiving presents and last but not least, giving. Many experiments show that spending on others can be more beneficial for your happiness than spending the same amount of money on yourself.

Much about Christmas is symbolic, what we do and what we experience gains its meaning from our individual perception. Symbols can be interpreted in various ways, for example you may take all the elements and rituals of Christmas – though commercialized – as indicators of love, peace and the pursuit of inner harmony and a better world. You may on the other hand consider them as disgusting excesses of a superficial, untruthful societal climate of hypocrisy. It is also possible to see Christmas as something in between or a mix of those two extremes.

It is tempting to conclude that Christmas is what you make of it. It would be easy to advise you to focus on the good aspects and be happy with it. Conserve the magic you experienced as a child, and simply tune out what you dislike. After all, there’s no need to play the Grinch!

But it isn‘t as easy as that. Some may have learned as a child that Christmas is a time of quarreling, stress, and tension. As an adult the sight of decorations and the sound of carols could trigger negative memories, anxiety or unwanted feelings.

Things start getting difficult when the ghosts of two such different Christmas pasts need to find a way to celebrate together. At this time of goodwill it’s important to negotiate empathically and carefully, with an understanding that both parties have good reasons to feel as they do. Stay flexible – not every tradition is worth insisting upon.

Don’t forget, much of the Christmas hassle comes from pleasing other people. An idyllic Christmas can easily turn into a blizzard of obligations. If it begins to look like an event you just provide for other people, then one important person was forgotten: you. Your wishes are no less important than the ones of others.

Whatever type you are, and however you celebrate this time may your Holidays be full of real, true and sustainable joy. That‘s the one gift you won’t pack away as soon as the holidays are over.

Find out more

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Mutz, M. (2016). Christmas and subjective well-being: A research note. Applied Research in Quality of Life, 11(4), 1341-1356.