Create your own experience this Christmas advises Heathfield psychologist

13th December

What does Christmas mean to you? Is it all about the religious experience, or is it the songs, mince pies and desire for snow? For most of us, in 21st Century Britain, it’s closely associated with family and friends. It’s a celebration in which all the social and family dynamics are activated, for good or ill. The giving and receiving of presents being the exchanges that speak of love, esteem and recognition.

While 75% of the population reports feeling generally positive about Xmas, nearly 50% report feeling very stressed, with the most stressed being women and the young. That women, who generally do most of the Christmas preparations, should feel more stressed, is perhaps no surprise but why are the under 18s highly stressed? Well, not all stress is due to negative situations or events. We can be stressed at the same time as feeling joy, excitement and even in anticipation of good things in our lives.

So what makes for a happy Christmas, if it isn’t just time off work and perhaps far too much chocolate. In a rigorous study of 117 US citizens (Kasser and Sheldon 2002), the conclusion was that it’s the contact with family and close friends and the reinforcement of our bonds of attachment, that are the most important determinants of a happy Christmas. Well we all knew that, didn’t we?

We know that many values and behaviours of individuals and society are reflected in festivals such as Christmas (see, Hirschman and LaBarbera, 1989), which is why so many themes intermingle during the holiday. The study mentioned above investigated many of these themes, finding that family and religion provided the greatest benefit to holiday well-being, whereas the secular, materialistic aspects of the holiday either contributed little to Christmas joy, or were associated with less happiness and more stress and unpleasant feelings. 

This is entirely consistent with studies of well-being throughout the year (see, Myers, 2000) Such findings suggest that the path to a merry Christmas, just like the path to well-being generally, comes not from materialism and the purchasing of many expensive gifts, wrapping them up and placing them under the tree; but instead from satisfying more fundamental human needs, to be close to one’s family and friends and to find meaning in life.

Christmas is one of the most psychological of human festivals, in that it evokes the primal and visceral terror of darkness that characterised humanity’s earliest experiences of winter. Pre-Christians worshipped the sun and the rituals performed by them around the Winter solstice were believed to lead to the days lengthening.

Fast forward through the millennia, and today we have our familiar globalised Christmas, replete with familial engagement, social choreography of gift-exchange, a conspiracy of mirth-making, and a near obligatory escape from toil.

But how does it make us feel?

Even the simple act of giving a gift is fraught with psychological pitfalls. Christmas gift-giving is reciprocal and allows for an immediate assessment of the relationship between givers and receivers. While one’s first instinct might be to strive for equity, psychology suggests that things are more complicated. Often we factor in the relative status of the recipients, tending to try to impress those we think are of higher status.

Research suggests that gender differences compound all this, making romantic gifts between men and women particularly perilous. Apparently, women are more likely to view a gift as measuring the compatibility between them and their partner. In contrast, men often view gifts as objects of material value, which may or may not come in handy sometime, or else can be returned to the shop.

That said, let’s not forget that all the above are general trends and of course it all depends on individual personalities.  Your relationship could be a reverse of the overall trend.

One habit that humans regularly exhibit at Christmas is nostalgic moaning. We may complain that ‘years ago’ the festivities were better and that nowadays everything has become so commercial. In fact, nostalgic moaning is nothing new. In 1790, The Times editorial published the following words: “Within the last half-century, this annual time of festivity has lost much of its original mirth and hospitality”.

The European Social Survey has suggested that people report lower emotional well-being at Christmas. Meanwhile, other studies show the reverse and that suicide and self-harming rates decline markedly at this time (with the exceptions of alcohol and substance abuse). For physical health, one legendary study reported that lower death rates of seriously ill people around Christmas suggest they often ‘hang on’ for a few days longer than they might otherwise do, in order to join in seasonal celebrations. We know that people who are suffering from depression tend to derive great benefit and often experience a lift of symptoms during the holiday period. Unfortunately, this is often followed by a serious dip and deepening of symptoms in the following weeks. By contrast, those with mood disorders who are alone at Christmas, experience a deepening of their feelings of loneliness and hopelessness.

This year, let’s remember that much of what we do and say at Christmas is conventional, socially sanctioned, somewhat arbitrary, subject to conditions of wealth and family cohesiveness and above all, as with all aspects of our lived experience, is within our control to change.

In other words, you can create your own experience at Christmas time. One that reinforces your connections to others and that holds meaning for you.

By Karen J. Thirtle, CPsychol., AFBPsS, Counselling Psychologist