The Science of Christmas Cheer!

It’s the most wonderful time of the year!

Christmas is a time for sharing the joy of the festive season with friends and

loved ones. An excessive amount of food is consumed, gifts are exchanged and

fond memories are shared.

What exactly is it about this time of year that makes us feel the festive cheer?

There doesn’t appear to be much research out there looking into the specific

effects of Christmas cheer, but the traditions that we take part in can each have a

psychological effect.

Spending time with loved ones

When you spend time with the people you love, it has been found that the

hormone oxytocin is produced, also known as the ‘cuddle hormone’. This has

been associated with the love of a mother and her child, but also with anyone

who brings you comfort and a sense of social wellbeing.

Jokes are shared, no matter how terrible, and comedy can act as a social glue that

allows people to bond. According to scientific research, the thing that makes a

joke so funny is the element of surprise or the ‘kick of discovery’ where a joke

leads us one way, but then surprises us the next. It seems that laughter may be

associated with the psychological process of discovery.

Laughter isn’t just something that we do when we are happy and find something

hilarious, but it is also a behavior that we exhibit in times of tragedy or serious

injury, therefore laughing can be a coping mechanism and a way that we can let

out our emotions. Many a guffaw is expressed over Christmas and it appears that

laughter is a universal language that can bring people together.

Christmas memories

Christmas always involves a sense of nostalgia where we reminisce on

Christmases gone by and the memories that resurface as a result.

The limbic system is an area of our brain involved in emotion and long-term

memory, and consists of many different brain areas including the hippocampus

and the amygdala.

The hippocampus is involved in cognition and memory and combines the ‘when’,

‘what’ and ‘where’ of the information that we process. The amygdala is

responsible for episodic autobiographical memory, which basically means the

memories that are related to events that affect us personally. These events are of

a particular emotional significance to an individual, such as the memories that

we create over Christmas and when recalled, can trigger a wave of emotions

related to that memory. Even listening to Christmas music can trigger an

emotional response linked to our memories.

Some memories may not always be pleasant, which is what makes nostalgia such

a complicated emotion. Christmas can be a difficult time where we remember

loved ones who we miss spending Christmas with, but we cherish the memories

we have made.

Christmas cheer isn’t only a build up to the day itself, but the tradition of singing

Auld Lang Syne meaning ‘times long past’ on new year’s eve is all about

remembering old friends- if you’ve ever seen When Harry Met Sally (if you

haven’t, shame on you), you will know just how confusing a song it is!

"Well, maybe it just means that we should remember that we forgot them or something.

Anyway, it's about old friends."

Gift giving

The act of exchanging gifts contributes to our feelings of festive cheer. Whilst the

financial stress can sometimes dampen our Christmas spirit, it’s important not to

forget why we buy gifts in the first place: making other people happy makes us


There is a certain feeling of selflessness that comes with buying a gift for

someone, as we see the smile on their face as they realize that we notice the

unique quirks of their personality.

The happiness that a gift can bring may seem materialistic to some, but often

even the small things can be of great value, when given to us by someone who

has put a great amount of thought into the gift.

There is some debate about whether the type of gift influences the perceived

strength of a particular friendship and it has been suggested that giving the gift

of an experience is often more profound than a material gift. The experience

itself creates more memories with that particular person which can be recalled

for years to come. This is not to say that material gifts aren’t great, I for one will

always be ecstatic to receive a new mug or three.

Giving gifts can strengthen friendship bonds and make us appreciate those who

know us the most even more, which is just one of the many ways that Christmas

brings us joy.

Food Happiness

Finally, the food we consume over the festive period can add to our merriment.

When we eat, endorphins can be released, which are the body’s natural

painkillers, which can leave us feeling content. The act of eating is reinforcing

behaviour that can make us feel satisfied and sugar can trigger the dopaminergic

reward pathways of the brain, which further reinforces this feeling of satiety. It’s

important to note that overeating and drinking more than we can handle can

have negative effects and leave us feeling as grouchy as the Grinch, but

everything in moderation is the key to having a holly jolly Christmas!

The build up to Christmas and the day itself is an opportunity to make those that

matter to us feel loved, whether it is by exchanging gifts and memories or

catching up over a festive feast. All of the little things that we do during this time

of year mean a lot to the people that we spend it with.

Have a very merry Christmas!

#LaurenNuttall #General #Christmas

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