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The Science Behind the Holiday Feel Good Effect Explained for Students in Life Skills Training

The holiday season is known for being a time of joy, good cheer, and family bonding. These feelings can arise from many different factors that we typically associate with the holidays, such as beloved foods, scents, and gifts (Hougaard et al., 2015). How can we explain the psychology behind these emotions? First, it should be emphasized that, although there’s no specific explanation for how we experience the holiday spirit neurologically, a larger network of different areas of the brain are responsible for how people interpret these feelings (Robertson, 2019).

That being said, it’s also worth acknowledging that various other factors, such as financial stress and preparing for unpleasant encounters with family members over the holidays, can lead to the opposite psychological effect. (Robertson, 2019). Regardless of whether the outcome is positive or negative, there are factors that determine the emotions one can feel during the holiday season. Here is a closer look at what students should know.

What Is the “Holiday Feel Good Effect” and Why Do We Feel It?

The “holiday feel good effect” can be the result of several different factors. For example, studies have shown that paying for gifts meant for other people can provide greater happiness to people than if they’d bought gifts for themselves (Dunn, Aknin, & Norton, 2008). Stress can also be relieved and oxytocin can increase when singing Christmas carols with others, since group singing can cause this psychological reaction (Keeler et al., 2015). 

With members of the Jewish population, Hanukkah’s traditions, such as eating sufganiyot and lighting candles, can elicit reactions of joy and cheer in children (“Hanukkah and the Christmas effect”, 2015).

Why is this the case? Traditionally, the belief has been that a certain “happiness circuit” in your brain is what triggers the positive emotions associated with Christmas, Hanukkah, and other holidays. This happiness circuit can be triggered whenever you see an advertisement for the holidays on television, enjoy a favourite holiday food, or participate in a beloved tradition (Robertson, 2019). This is because we associate the holiday season with nostalgia and happiness (Robertson, 2019).

The psychological reaction of joy during the holiday season is linked to our traditions

A 2015 study suggests that there could be a “Christmas spirit” network in our brains, where certain areas of the brain respond to holiday-themed imagery (Hougaard et al., 2015). More specifically, this study used functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI) to show participants Christmas-themed images alongside similar images that were not related to the holiday season (Hougaard et al., 2015). Participants were then asked a series of questions about Christmas and their associations with it, and these participants’ brain activation maps were then analyzed to identify what triggers their neurological sensations (Hougaard et al., 2015). The study ultimately found that the brain had numerous cortical regions forming a “Christmas spirit network”, where participants with positive associations to Christmas displayed much more psychological activity than those who didn’t (Hougaard et al., 2015).

That said, it’s worth mentioning to students in life skills training that some research indicates that emotional reactions are built in the moment and based on a combination of life experiences and core neurological systems. Therefore, people have more control over their emotions than they previously might have thought (Barrett, 2017).

How to Help Clients Struggling With the Holidays After Life Skills Training

As mentioned earlier, the holiday season is one that we tend to associate with warmth and positivity. Advertisements, food, activities, and decorations can all elicit unique psychological reactions in people (Robertson, 2019). Additionally, one’s experience with holiday traditions can shape one’s construct of themselves, and their attitudes on holidays as a whole. This is especially driven by nostalgia, one’s sense of generosity, and one’s desire to maintain consistency when celebrating these traditions (De Weerd, 2020).

However, there is the opposite side to this that students doing their online life skills training will need to consider. If someone associates the holidays with negative feelings and experiences, this is sometimes known as “bah humbug syndrome” (Hougaard et al., 2015). In fact, some studies show that the holiday season can lead to more people dying from alcohol use, as well as people’s moods generally being worse (Sansone & Sansone, 2011). Because of this, it’s important to pinpoint how the “feel good effect” works, so as to better be able to help those who feel despondence rather than cheer (Hougaard et al., 2015).

Life skills counselling can help clients reframe their thoughts on the holidays

How can a life skills counsellor help those who are generally struggling with their feelings regarding the holiday season? For one, they can teach clients the importance of practicing healthy, productive habits that can help make them feel good on a regular basis. These include healthier eating, a good work-life balance, regular exercise, and sufficient sleep each night (Beer-Becker, 2020). Practicing these habits can help clients be more able to reframe their thought patterns and better regulate their feelings (Beer-Becker, 2020). 

Also, research shows that developing a more optimistic outlook on life can reap positive benefits for one’s mental and physical well-being (Conversano, et al., 2010), and that life skills training itself can have a significantly positive impact on one’s regulation of emotions, quality of life, and overall sense of satisfaction and happiness (Haji, Mohammadkhani, & Hahtami, 2011). If a client is having a difficult time resolving their emotions regarding the holiday season, giving them a strong foundation of productive life skills could help them approach their attitudes on the holidays in a more positive manner.

Do you want to take an online life skills counsellor program?

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Works Cited

Barrett, L. F. (2017). How Emotions Are Made: The Secret Life of the Brain. Houghton Mifflin Harcourt.

Beer-Becker, D. (2020, January 13). To Feel Good, You Need a Solid Foundation of Positive Life Skills. Retrieved from https://www.blakepsychology.com/2020/01/to-feel-good-you-need-a-solid-foundation-of-positive-life-skills/

Buckner, R. L. (2012). The serendipitous discovery of the brains default network. NeuroImage, 62(2), 1137-1145. doi:10.1016/j.neuroimage.2011.10.035

Conversano, C., Rotondo, A., Lensi, E., Vista, O. D., Arpone, F., & Reda, M. A. (2010). Optimism and Its Impact on Mental and Physical Well-Being. Clinical Practice & Epidemiology in Mental Health, 6(1), 25-29. doi:10.2174/1745017901006010025

De Weerd, J. (2020, December 03). The Psychology of Christmas. Retrieved from https://blog.crobox.com/article/the-psychology-of-christmas

Dunn, E. W., Aknin, L. B., & Norton, M. I. (2008). Spending Money on Others Promotes Happiness. Science, 319(5870), 1687-1688. doi:10.1126/science.1150952

Hanukkah and the Christmas effect. (2015, December 08). Retrieved from https://www.researchgate.net/blog/post/hanukkah-and-the-christmas-effect

Haji, T. M., Mohammadkhani, S., & Hahtami, M. (2011). The Effectiveness of Life Skills Training on Happiness, Quality of Life and Emotion Regulation. Procedia – Social and Behavioral Sciences, 30, 407-411. doi:10.1016/j.sbspro.2011.10.080

Hougaard, A., Lindberg, U., Arngrim, N., Larsson, H. B., Olesen, J., Amin, F. M., . . . Haddock, B. T. (2015). Evidence of a Christmas spirit network in the brain: Functional MRI study. Bmj. doi:10.1136/bmj.h6266

Keeler, J. R., Roth, E. A., Neuser, B. L., Spitsbergen, J. M., Waters, D. J., & Vianney, J. (2015). The neurochemistry and social flow of singing: Bonding and oxytocin. Frontiers in Human Neuroscience, 9. doi:10.3389/fnhum.2015.00518

Robertson, O. (2019, December 24). The neuroscience of the Christmas cheer ’emotion’. Retrieved December 18, 2020, from https://theconversation.com/the-neuroscience-of-the-christmas-cheer-emotion-127141

Sansone, R. A., & Sansone, L. A. (2011). The christmas effect on psychopathology. Innovations in clinical neuroscience, 8(12), 10–13.

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