Kitchener-Waterloo·Happiness column

Feeling festive earlier this year? Research says that's to be expected: Jennifer Moss

Many people are feeling the urge to deck the halls a little earlier this year and happiness columnist Jennifer Moss says research shows getting in the festive spirit early can actually make you feel better.

'We need to accept positive emotions more than ever during challenging and stressful times'

If you're feeling festive a little earlier this year, you're not alone and research says it may be exactly what you need if you're feeling COVID-19 burnout. (Ben Nelms/CBC)

Holiday decorations are popping up everywhere in our neighborhoods.

Trees are being lit. Gift shopping is well under way. Spotify subscribers have already listened to 6.5 billion minutes of holiday music this fall.

If you're already into the holiday cheer, there may be science to back you up for the early start.

A research study says yes, holiday cheer right now is good. So, what is it about the holiday season that makes us feel happy? 

For starters, memories attached to the holiday seasons are some of our best. Reflecting on those memories stirs up happy feelings. Part of the joy comes from nostalgia, which has been shown in studies to increase positive emotions and enhance joy. Plus, altruism increases in the month of December and as people start to give more and donate more, it makes them happy. 

Whether we're putting up decorations, planning for our time off, arranging the meals we're going to prepare, we tend to be thinking of happier times — the times with family and friends and family traditions we've engaged in. 

For some people it's bittersweet. We may be grieving the loss of loved ones or missing the family we will be apart from this year. While we may not be as physically close to others as usual, we're still able to interact with each other socially through voice and video chats. It's good to talk about our future plans — it can serve as the perfect talking point for enhancing social relationships.

The earlier the better

Some believe that starting the holiday season too early may feel overwhelming, but several researchers say otherwise. As humans, we spend a lot of our mental lives living in the future. Our future-mindedness can be a source of joy if we know good things are coming. 

We've been struggling with looking forward to anything lately for fear of disappointment. That's made us all a little bit gun-shy about making firm plans. But to preserve our well-being, we should still try to look farther ahead and farther back at times. The holidays serve some of those healthy feelings that come with looking forward, and also bringing back nostalgia of the past. 

Another study showed that decorating the outside of our homes during the holidays can make you appear more welcoming and sociable.

You don't need to be Clark Griswold, but decorating your home can make you appear more welcoming and sociable, one study found. (David Bajer/CBC)

The research, published in the Journal of Environmental Psychology, had people rate their sociability and then decorate outside their homes. It found that when Christmas decorations were present, neighbours actually attributed greater sociability to the non-sociable residents.

The results support the idea that people can use their home's exterior to communicate attachment to the neighbourhood and possibly to integrate themselves into a community's social activities. Basically, decorations help build a sense of community and belonging – things associated with happiness.

Plan for happiness all year

Although summer vacations came to an abrupt end this year, in normal times planning and anticipating a trip can be almost as enjoyable as going on the trip itself.

A 2014 Cornell University study delved into how the anticipation of an experience (like a trip) can increase a person's happiness substantially more so than the anticipation of buying material goods. An earlier study, published by the University of Surrey in 2002 found that people are at their happiest when they have a vacation planned. 

As I keep reminding myself and others; this pandemic shall pass, and we will go back to planning ahead for future joy. In the meantime, we can still celebrate the holidays, despite how different they may feel.

Plan for stress

For some, the holiday season does not increase positive emotions, but rather it can increase anxiety. We want to be mindful of those people around us who aren't experiencing happy feelings and may be instead feeling increased isolation. 

The best way to find out how people are feeling right now is to ask. Check in and make sure you're being sensitive. My theme for 2020 is all about empathy. If someone is struggling, our job is to meet them where they're at. That doesn't mean feeling guilt for your own happiness, but remaining supportive — be an ear if you can. 

This bears repeating: If we feel good around the holidays and it improves our well-being, don't shut those feelings down. We need to accept positive emotions more than ever during challenging and stressful times. Our ability to rebound depends on it. 

Listen to Jennifer Moss on CBC Calgary's Eyeopener:

The earlier the holiday season starts, the happier you'll be. It's science. Happiness columnist Jennifer Moss explains. 5:28

Planning with positivity 

Create meaning. Reflect on what is important to you during the holidays. Choose your favourite tradition and make sure you still practice it. Adding meaning to our lives is a happiness predictor and has plenty of health benefits. 

Ask for and give help. Accept offers to help shop, wrap or cook. Some people may not know how best to help but it does make them happy when they are asked. And, if you don't need the help give support to someone else who might need it. Is there someone in your community that could use help putting up lights, shopping for their gifts, or buying groceries? Reach out and offer them a hand. 

Maintain a healthy lifestyle. We may choose to overindulge during the holidays so counteract that with getting out and moving. Walk in nature to increase mindfulness, go skating, build a snowman — find ways to love winter outside. 

Manage spending. It's easy to feel the pressure of consumerism during the holidays. Decrease the financial stress by making and sticking to a budget. 

Focus on the future. Start an entirely new tradition that is specific to 2020 and all the good and bad that came with it. Plan it early because we now know planning is good for us. Enlist friends and family to make the best of a challenging time. If we can find a way to reframe this holiday as something other than totally forgettable, we will be able to look back on 2020 with a modicum of fondness. 

After all, this year's plan may just turn out to be next year's tradition. 

It's unclear exactly what the model in this stock photo is doing, but he's clearly very happy about it. Jennifer Moss writes that if we feel good around the holidays and it improves our well-being, don't shut those feelings down. So rock on, stock model. (Shutterstock / Look Studio)

About the Author

Jennifer Moss

CBC Happiness and Well-being Columnist

Jennifer Moss is an international public speaker, award-winning author, and UN Global Happiness Committee Member.

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