Do You Have the Holiday Spirit? How (and Why) the Holidays Impact Our Mood

If Scrooge and the Grinch can find the holiday spirit, can you?

Research shows that holiday images, memories of childhood, songs and even Hallmark movies can all help contribute to a sense of happiness that can be dubbed the “holiday spirit” or “good cheer.”

“There is a subconscious code of generosity, kindness and charity that the holidays promote, known as ‘holiday spirit,’” notes Carla Schnitzlein, DO, medical director of Natchaug Hospital, part of the Hartford HealthCare Behavioral Health Network.

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But where does that ‘holiday spirit’ come from?

This, research shows, is due to a variety of factors, including:

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If your holiday memories are happy, your brain will be too.

Several years ago, a researcher performed brain scans on one group of people who celebrated Christmas and another that did not. When shown holiday images, those in the former group showed activity in the front of the brain, where happiness registers.

“Many of us associate the holidays with positive memories and our brains are wired to respond in certain ways when we view certain images, either pleasant or unpleasant,” Dr. Schnitzlein says. “If the holiday memories you have are happy, your brain is more likely to respond in a way that represents happiness or joy.”

It works for music, too, she adds.

“Musical concepts like tempo, rhythm and key impact mood,” she notes. “Major keys, in which many holiday songs are written, are considered happy sounding and can put us in the holiday mindset and spirit.”

This, research indicates, might be why retailers start playing holiday tunes early, hoping they encourage spending.

Not feeling so happy? This might explain why.

The music, lights and trappings of the holidays don’t feel joyous to everyone, however.

“Certainly, may people have strong family connections and wonderful family traditions, which helps promote a positive outlook during the holidays,” Dr. Schnitzlein says. “That said, not everyone has these connections, and they can feel isolated during the holidays.”

Another consideration, she adds, is the 38% of people who, when surveyed, reported increased stress, anxiety and other mental health concerns.

“We have to remember that, although the holidays can spark joy in a large part of the population, it can also be challenging to those with strained family relationships or limited financial means,” Dr. Schnitzlein says.

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Short home workouts can boost your mood and reduce stress : Shots

Add five-minute stints of fun and easy exercise to your day at home by working with what’s around you, says trainer Molly McDonald.

Cha Pornea for NPR

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Cha Pornea for NPR

Add five-minute stints of fun and easy exercise to your day at home by working with what’s around you, says trainer Molly McDonald.

Cha Pornea for NPR

Of all the ways in which the pandemic has affected Americans’ well-being, perhaps the one we’ve noticed least is how much we’re sitting. And it’s not just bad for our waistlines — it’s hurting our mental health.

More than a year and a half of social distancing and work-from-home policies have led to less time moving around and more time sitting and looking at screens — it’s a potentially toxic combination that’s linked with poorer mental health.

“The sneaky effects of the pandemic that we might not even notice [is] that we’ve changed our sitting patterns,” says Jacob Meyer, director of the Wellbeing and Exercise lab at Iowa State University.

His own research showed that in the early weeks of the pandemic, people who exercised less and had more screen time were likely to be stressed, depressed and lonely.

And though most people saw their mental health gradually improve as they adapted to a new reality, people who stayed mostly sedentary didn’t see get the same improvement, according to a follow-up study by Meyer. “People who continued to have really high levels of sitting, their depression didn’t improve” as much, says Meyer.

The good news is that something as simple as some very light movement around the house to break up all that couch surfing time can make a difference in mood, as Meyer’s earlier research has found.

Scores of previous studies confirm that being physically active boosts mood, lowers anxiety and improves sleep quality.

“We know consistently that the more people are active, the more that they exercise, the better their mental health is,” says Meyer.

For many office workers like me, working from home means we’ve fallen into a routine of spending hours at our desk. With another pandemic winter about to hit us and much of the country and the world still dealing with COVID-19, we are often stuck at home more than we’d like, so it’s time to start sitting less and moving around more.

Meyer and other exercise experts shared some tips

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