How Do You Really Feel About the Holidays?

Merry Christmas! Happy Hanukah! Happy Holidays, everyone!

Did that greeting just make you warm inside with thoughts of winter lights and family celebrations and Salvation Army bells ringing for the poor? Or did you flinch? If you felt like rolling your eyes just now, I blame the retailers who have been forcing the holidays on us since the clock struck midnight on Halloween. This time of year usually generates 25 percent of all retail profits, and it seems every year advertisers redouble their holiday efforts to sell us stuff we don’t need.

Advertisers are of course targeting our children, too, and not just during the holidays. From 1980 to 2004 the amount spent on children’s advertising in America increased 15,000 percent—from $100 million to $15 billion annually. That’s insane; and it’s working. Economist Juliet Schor calculates that the average kid gets 70 new toys a year. What kid actually needs 70 toys in a lifetime?

And yet we’re convinced that what will make our kids feel happy and loved on Christmas is a crazy pile of presents. Research shows that all this materialism leads to depression and anxiety. Kids who focus on stuff and money are less happy and more sick, more narcissistic, and have more behavior disorders than others. Clearly the joy they feel anticipating their loot doesn’t last.

Here’s the thing: though fraught with materialism, this season has more potential than any other to foster happiness.

Religious and culturally meaningful holidays spawn loads of family traditions—baking cookies, picking out a tree, caroling, parties to catch up with people you love—and it is family traditions and togetherness that offer lasting happiness. Social scientists have studied this specifically, and they’ve found that the people who spend more time with family and have more religious experiences during the holidays are happier than those who focus on spending money and receiving gifts. 

Just as important for fostering happiness, we can use the holidays to cultivate children’s desire to help others simply by modeling our own desire to give and by involving them in the helping. Family altruism teaches kids empathy and shows how giving makes us happy. And the effects are thought to be long term—very long term. Altruistic high school students in one study were healthier and happier fifty years later.

It should come as no surprise that the “helper’s high,” as one researcher has called it, is considerably healthier than the (ahem) other adult highs in which we tend to indulge during the holidays.

There is a strong association between helping behavior and health. This we learned from Ebenezer Scrooge, who became more vibrant and fit with each new act of kindness. Dickens intuitively knew what science is now proving, namely that helping others can counteract the stress and sadness some experience during the holidays.

According to altruism researcher Stephen Post, this is because altruism creates deep and positive relationships. It distracts us from our own problems and the anxiety that comes from being preoccupied with ourselves. Helping others gives our own lives greater meaning and purpose. Altruistic behavior cultivates loads of positive emotions—think gratitude, awe, optimism, faith, compassion, and love—and those feelings displace negative emotions like guilt, envy and sadness.

My friend Kelly Corrigan, whom I talk with in our video blog series Half Full, has loads of fantastic Christmas traditions because her own childhood memories of holiday happiness are built on Corrigan family rituals. Each year Kelly, Edward and their daughters collect and wrap gifts for kids who wouldn’t otherwise get any, and then they deliver the presents together. They stay long enough to watch the kids open their presents. All return home feeling connected and content – with a “helpers high.”

I can’t think of a better way to spend the holiday season and to close out the old year than by building family traditions and giving to others—especially if our goal is to raise happy children.

Christine Carter, Ph.D.*, is a sociologist and happiness expert at uC berkeley’s greater good Science Center. She is the author of “RAISING HAPPINESS: 10 Simple Steps for More Joyful Kids and Happier Parents.” She teaches online happiness classes that help parents bring more joy into their own lives and the lives of their children, and she writes an award-winning blog for *greater good* (“Sign up now with promotional code activekids, and get $25 off the cost of the class!”