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Use your Brain and have a Happy Christmas

As Christmas approaches, we anticipate this with differing amounts of trepidation and excitement. There appears to be considerable pressure to enjoy the day and to make sure that everyone is happy – which raises the question “Do we know what makes us happy?”

The simple answer to this is that activity in the dopamine reward centres makes us feel happy – problem solved. Receiving presents that we really wanted does that – doesn’t it? And the more expensive the present, the greater the appreciation? All we need to do is to make sure that we drop enough hints and we can ensure ourselves a happy Christmas.

But does this match our experience. If you think back to Christmases past, which do you remember, and what is it about them that makes them memorable?

For instance, one of the things that I remember most about Christmases with my family was that my parents would write a pantomime for us and then we would act this out (very badly) in teams. Props and costumes would be provided but it was up to each team how they used these. Much creativity would go into dividing up parts (always with too few people to play them all). I vividly remember making up faces so that each half represented a different character and then having to remember which way to be facing for which lines. Our team won the panto competition that year as a result of this simple piece of ingenuity! I still smile when I recall this particularly happy memory but I have no idea what Christmas gifts I received that year.

What makes this happens turns out to be a lot more complicated than we might imagine and even throws up some research findings that, at first, are counter-intuitive. Indeed, it suggests that some of our intuitions about what might make us happy are wrong!

A bit of knowledge about the way that our brains work might help us to make Christmas happier. Here, we have put together some top tips to help:

1 When we receive things that we thought we really wanted, we are happy for less time than we anticipate (Wilson & Gilbert, 2008; Kurtz, 2016). This has been termed affective forecasting and studies have shown that we anticipate that the effects of both intensely negative and intensely positive events will last for longer than they do. The pleasure and novelty of a much-anticipated event soon wears off.

Action: Remember to enjoy the anticipation of Christmas to the full!

2 Surprise, uncertainty and curiosity prolongs our happiness (Wilson, Centerbar, Kermer & Gilbert, 2005). Remember when Christmas was magical because we didn’t know whether Santa would bring the gifts that we wanted, and not knowing how he came down the chimney (or otherwise managed to get in to our house). And – we really didn’t want to know the answer. Research suggests that when we make sense of events, we lose the emotional intensity – so just enjoy the magic of Christmas and don’t try to explain why it works.

Action: Consider how you can make Christmas more magical

3 Sometimes, on the run up to Christmas, we might find ourselves wishing that Christmas could be cancelled. But what would it really be like if there was no Christmas? Research by Koo, Algoe, Wilson & Gilbert (2008) has demonstrated that people are happier after they have reflected on the absence of an event than when imagining the same event.

Action: If you find yourself wishing that Christmas could be cancelled – imagine this in full, technicolour detail to remind yourself of all the reasons why this would be a bad idea.

4 My favourite Christmases, when I look back, involve acting out our family pantomimes, playing games and cooking for the whole family as a family. All of these involve some level of personal challenge which fits with the research. This shows that we are happiest when we are challenged - not when we are bored (Waterman, 1993).

Action: Find ways to add personal challenge to your Christmas for both yourself and your guests.

5 I remember one Christmas when I couldn’t be with family and so spent part of the day helping to feed people who had nowhere to go and nothing to eat at Christmas. I remember this as one of the happiest Christmases I have had. The research suggests that being with others makes us happy (Diener & Seligman, 2002) - especially when we are helping others.

Action: Use some time over this Christmas period to do something actively for others.

6 When we remember happy events, is the intensity of the happiness we experience or the frequency of happiness that causes the memory to be remembered positively? Would we be better doing something really special at one point on Christmas day or are lots of little pleasures more effective in creating a happy memory of the day? Studies have compared how happy participants feel based on the intensity versus the frequency of happy moments in a day. What these have shown is that it is the frequency of our positive experiences which is a better predictor of our happiness than the intensity of the experience (Thomas & Diener, 2002).

Action: Think about how you can have lots of little pleasures throughout your Christmas day to create a really happy memory.

7 Can you recall a fantastic holiday or even a great Christmas day from the past? What do you remember specifically from that day which made it so special? Research suggests that we remember events as having been really positive experiences if the last thing that happened was positive (Fredrickson & Kahneman, 1993).

Action: Purposefully plan your Christmas get together so that there is a highlight at the end of the day.

8 We are happier when we give than when we receive (Dunn, Aknin & Norton, 2008). In this study, people were given either $5 or $20 and given instructions to either spend this on themselves (paying a bill or buying a gift) or on others (gift for others or charity donation). Those who were randomly assigned to spend money on others were happier after the event than those who spent money on themselves.

Action: How can we think less about what we might get for Christmas and concentrate more on what we can give?


Diener, E. & Seligman, M. (2002) Very happy people. Psychological Science, 13, 81-84.

Dunn, E., Aknin, L. & Norton, M. (2008) Spending Money on Others Promotes Happiness. Science, 319, 1687-1688.

Fredrickson, B. & Kahneman, D. (1993) Duration neglect in retrospective evaluations of affective episodes. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 65, 45-55.

Koo, M., Algoe, S., Wilson, T. & Gilbert, D. (2008) It’s a Wonderful Life: Mentally Subtracting Positive Events Improves People’s Affective States, Contrary to Their Affective Forecasts. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 95, 1217-1224

Kurtz, J. (2016) Affective Forecasting: Teaching a Useful, Accessible, and Humbling Area of Research. Teaching of Psychology, 43, 80-85.

Thomas, D. & Diener, E. (1990) Memory accuracy in the recall of emotions. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 59, 291-297.

Waterman, A.S. (1993) Two conceptions of happiness: contrasts of personal expressiveness (Eudaimonia) and hedonic enjoyment. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 64, 678-691.

Wilson, T. & Gilbert, D. (2008) Explaining Away: A Model of Affective Adaptation. Psychological Science, 3, 370-386.

Wilson, T., Centerbar, D., Kermer, D. & Gilbert, D. (2005) The Pleasures of Uncertainty: Prolonging Positive Moods in Ways People Do Not Anticipate. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 88, 5-21

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