So here it is, merry Christmas, everybody’s having fun: Christmas and psychological wellbeing

20 12 2010
Materialistic aspects of modern Christmas celebrations may in fact undermine psychological wellbeing

Materialistic aspects of modern Christmas celebrations may in fact undermine psychological wellbeing

Given the religious and cultural significance of Christmas is it surprising that so little psychological research has been carried out into what it means for people in contemporary society and its effect on psychological wellbeing. In fact, most psychological research has examined the more negative effects such as whether psychiatric admissions and suicide rates increase over the festive period.

However, an interesting 2002 study entitled “What makes for a Merry Christmas?” was carried out in the USA by Tim Kasser and Kennon Sheldon of Knox University (Illinois) and published in the Journal of Happiness Studies. (No, I didn’t know such a journal existed either!). The study built on previous research by Kasser, who showed that people whose lives are focused on goals such as intimacy and community feeling report greater psychological wellbeing, whereas those people who are more concerned with money, possessions, and image were less happy.

In relation to Christmas more specifically, other previous research has indicated that there are seven main types of activities that occur during the Christmas holidays. These are (i) spending time with family; (ii) participating in religious activities; (iii) maintaining traditions (e.g., decorating a Christmas tree); (iv) spending money on others via the purchase of gifts; (v) receiving gifts from others; (vi) helping others less fortunate than ourselves; and (vii) enjoying the sensual aspects of the holiday (e.g., good food, drinking, etc.).

Through the use of a survey, Kasser and Sheldon examined these seven experiences and activities that are associated with Christmas wellbeing using the ‘Satisfaction With Life Scale’. All the participants in their study were presented with 25 “experiences and activities” and asked to rate “how much each experience actually occurred during the previous Christmas season” on a scale of 1 to 5 (where a score of ‘1’ indicated that it was “completely absent” and a score of 5’ indicated that it “occurred a great deal”).

The questions were given to adults aged from 18 to 80. Overall, the study found that around three-quarters of the respondents had a satisfactory Christmas holiday whereas only 10% had a very bad Christmas holiday. However, just under half of the sample (44%) said they had a stressful Christmas despite being satisfied.  The average scores (out of five) for each of the seven activities was in order of occurrence: spending time with the family (4.05); enjoying food and drink, etc. (3.22); religious activities (2.88); traditional activities (2.87); spending money on other people (2.84); receiving gifts from other people  (2.40); and helping others (2.44).

Their research also showed that more happiness was reported during the holiday period when family and religious experiences were particularly important, and lower wellbeing occurred when spending money and receiving gifts predominated. They also reported that, in general, males were much happier and less stressed than females during the Christmas holidays. Older individuals reported greater Christmas happiness, although this effect, Kasser and Sheldon argued, was largely explained by more frequent experiences of religion. There were no differences on any other demographic factors including income, education, or marital status (i.e., being rich, clever and in a relationship does not appear to have any influence on how good Christmas is).

Kasser and Sheldon concluded that the materialistic aspects of modern Christmas celebrations may in fact undermine psychological wellbeing, while family and spiritual activities may help people to feel more satisfied. So why is this the case? Kasser and Sheldon suggested that both family and religion provide satisfaction of needs for relatedness to others, which is a well-known determinant of positive functioning.

Professor Mark Griffiths is based in the Psychology Division in Nottingham Trent University’s School of Social Sciences


The psychology of games

16 12 2010
People will be out to prove their superiority at the games boards this Christmas

People will be out to prove their superiority at the games boards this Christmas

Christmas is perhaps the one guaranteed time of year that families up and down the country get together and play games. I don’t know about you, but it is one of our family traditions to play inter-generational games for hours on end on Boxing Day afternoon.

Most of us love to play games – especially if we win! I like nothing better than an afternoon at the Scrabble board – but even if I lose, I have usually had a good time along the way. So what is the fascination with games? Why do we play them? How are games categorized? And what makes some games so successful and others not?

Why do we play games? Game playing is a free and voluntary activity, a source of joy and amusement bounded by precise limits of time and space as well as what the sociologist Erving Goffman called “a world building activity”. Sigmund Freud was one of the first people to concentrate on the functions of playing games. He speculated that game playing provided a temporary leave of absence from reality that reduced individual conflict and brought about a change from the passive to the active. More modern thinking is that people play games to concentrate on a limited stimulus field, in which they can use skills to meet clear demands, thereby forgetting their own problems and separate identity.

Games provide the opportunity to prove one’s superiority, the desire to challenge and overcome an obstacle and a medium by which to test one’s skill, endurance and ingenuity. Games, unlike some activities (including life itself!) tell us whether we have won or lost. Sociologists have argued that in the context of a competitive and materialistic culture that has become increasingly regimented and standardized with little room for individual creativity and personal achievement, games offer the illusion of control over destiny and circumstance.

How are games categorized?  Perhaps the best categorisation of game types was formulated by the French anthropologist Roger Caillois who listed four classifications. These were: agon (games involving competition), alea (games involving chance), mimicry (games involving simulation) and ilinx (games involving vertigo – such as children spinning round and round). In the context of games like chess, poker, Scrabble and Monopoly, alea and agon are crucial in that they offer a combination of skill, chance and luck.

Most people desire opportunities to test their strength and skill against an adversary, and those games that offer a component of skill or talent combined with luck and chance provide the most favourable conditions. This is particularly prevalent in males who are deemed “masculine” if during the socialization process they show (socially) important traits such as courage, independence and bravery. Another interesting observation is that in games involving winners and losers the real prize is often status as opposed to positive material gain. Thus, by taking risks, reputations are built and winners gain social rewards.

What makes a successful game? Nearly all successful games (e.g. chess, Scrabble, backgammon, card games, various video games, etc) share fundamental similarities. These factors determine whether games become firmly established or simply fade away and include the capacity for skill development, a large bibliography, people to play against (including competitions and tournaments), and, in contemporary culture, corporate sponsorship and advertising. Let’s look at these briefly in turn.

All good games are relatively easy to play but can take a lifetime to become truly adept. I would therefore argue that the capacity for continued skill development is important for an activity’s continued popularity and future existence. Secondly, for games of any complexity there must be a bibliography that people can reference and consult. Without books and magazines to instruct and provide information there will be no development and the activity will die. The sheer number of monthly game magazines on the market again demonstrates how healthy the game industry is! Thirdly there needs to be people to play with or against. At the serious end this will include competitions and tournaments. Without somewhere to play and likeminded people to play with there will be little development within the field over long periods of time. This is very much linked to the capacity for skill development as the best players in any activity will want competitive arenas in which they can demonstrate their dexterity, prowess, physical and mental reaction time, problem solving ability and overall game play. Finally – and very much a sign of the times – no leisure activity can succeed today without corporate sponsorship and advertising of some kind.

So when you are playing Monopoly with Auntie Cheryl and cousin Frank on Boxing Day afternoon, just remember that there is more to games than the sheer enjoyment of playing.

Professor Mark Griffiths is the Director of the International Gaming Research Unit at Nottingham Trent University

Christmas stress – it’s all relative

13 12 2010
Just the one then? Drinking alcohol in moderation could help reduce stresses and strains this Christmas can

Drinking too much during family gatherings can sometimes lead to saying things that we later regret

As much as we all want Christmas to revolve around perfect presents, tasty food and drink, no work, and leisure time to be spent with close family and friends, it can be a psychologically tense and stressful time even among the most happy and well-adjusted families. Not only is there the crowded shopping, the writing of copious Christmas cards, the wrapping of presents, and the travelling, but there is often the extra burden of obligatory extended family staying and/or visiting. Patience can be pushed to the outer limit throughout the festive period. Trying to satisfy multiple family members all of who have different needs is difficult at best. Additionally, family reunions have the potential to bring about a range of deep-rooted emotions including jealousy, resentment, competitiveness, and (sibling) rivalry. Expectations may not be met. Instead of joy and happiness we may feel stressed, hurt and/or exhausted. So how do you cope with the family-related stresses and strains during the festive period? Here are my top ten tips.

(1) Keep expectations of time spent with family hopeful but realistic – You may not be able to change your family’s dynamics, but at least be aware of how your family can affect your psychological mood state. Some relatives may use the Christmas family reunion to play out family dynamics or re-enact old sibling rivalries. Knowing the problems you might expect from particular family members makes them easier to deal with should they arise. If possible, find ways to shorten or eliminate the family experiences that put you in a bad, anxious or depressed mood.

(2) Make your family time count – Instead of watching television or DVDs for hours on end, do something together as a family. Go for a walk after the Christmas dinner, play a karaoke video game, play a board game or a parlour game like charades. Basically, do anything where you have to interact with each other. Even making the Christmas dinner could be a communal activity where each adult and child has a specific job.

(3) Drink alcohol in moderation – Alcohol can be a double-edged sword so be mindful when drinking with family members. Alcohol’s disinhibiting effect can help facilitate friendly family interaction but drinking too much during family gatherings can sometimes lead to saying things that we later regret.

(4) Don’t take everything personally – The ability to step back from a stressful situation caused by a family member is a skill to be cultivated. Remember that any family member is an individual with moods and desires that are separate from their relationship with you. If something really irritates or stresses you, think about what triggered the feeling, then try to let it go and don’t take it personally.

(5) Take time out every day – Stress at Christmas time can sometimes arise just because there is a house full of people with little opportunity for “me” time. Try to find time in the day to do something on your own. Go for a brisk walk, pop to the newsagents, have a long bath, tidy up the kitchen while listening to a soccer match or the Ashes, or put your headphones on and listen to your favourite music. Do anything that gives you that much needed little ‘time out’ for the day.

(6) Be organized – Sounds easy but good organization can often be the key to a hassle-free day. Starting out each day with some kind of “game plan” can help alleviate the typical stress that arises from the Christmas family politics.

(7) Be assertive Again, easier said than done but learning the power of how to be politely assertive and just saying ‘no’ when faced with family obligations over Christmas can pay big stress-free dividends. Learn how to set boundaries with family so you can experience the true joy of the festive season.

(8) Beware the vicious circle – Children, as well as adults, can feel stressed during Christmas. Children often pick up on signs of your anxiety and they themselves can become stressed. This can lead to you feeling even more stressed. In short, a vicious circle where stress and anxiety feeds off each other. Try to hide the stress you feel, especially from children, as this may decrease the length of time you feel anxious.

(9) Be grateful for what you have in life No matter how stressful your family may be over the festive period, it is always good to be grateful for the things you have in your life. As one psychologist noted in his blog: “If you are reading this online, then you are alive, have access to the internet, and have at least some free time to surf the net”.

(10) Remember that relationships are the most important thing we have – All of us need to remember that the Christmas feelings of joy and happiness come not from the gifts, decorations, food and drink, but from our relationships with other people. Christmas is about relationships – not only the relationship you have your family and friends, but also the relationship you have with yourself. If we make our close relationships the top priority, then the rest of the Christmas should fall naturally into place.

Professor Mark Griffiths is based in the Psychology Division of Nottingham Trent University’s School of Social Sciences

Suicides at Christmas: Is there a relationship?

9 12 2010
there is little evidence that the Christmas holidays are a time of increased risk of suicide

There is little evidence that the Christmas holidays are a time of increased risk of suicide

One of the many “scientific facts” that tend to be rolled out during this time of year is the oft-repeated claim that suicides are more common during the Christmas season. The “evidence” for such claims supposedly relies on increased stress as a result of feeling lonely, the stress of family dysfunction, and/or the increased depression felt during the cold and dark winter months. However, there is a lot of research that totally refutes this claim (depending upon where the start and end of the Christmas holidays are).

For instance, one of the world’s premier researchers in this area, the American psychologist Dr David Lester, as far back as 1979 published research in the American Journal of Epidemiology that adult suicide rates were lower on the six major national US holidays than the rest of the year. However, his research did show that there were significantly more suicides on January 1 than either the week before (December 25) and a week later (Jan 8). Other research studies have shown that among American boys, the peak rate of suicides is at the end of the academic year which may be related to a loss in social support and friendship networks.

An article in the 2008 Christmas issue of the British Medical Journal (BMJ) by Rachel Vreeman and Aaron Carroll assessed the evidence surrounding “seasonal medical myths” and came to the conclusion that there is a consistent body of worldwide research showing that suicide does not peak in the cold winter months but peaks during the summer, autumn or spring months. For instance, they reported a Finnish research study showing that suicides were more likely in autumn than in winter whereas a study monitoring Hungarian suicide rates over a three-decade period reported that peak rates occurred during the summer months and were lowest during the winter months. This was also contrasted with a study carried out in India showing that the peak rates of suicide were in the springtime (April to May).

Another study cited by Vreeman and Carroll in the BMJ, and carried out in Japan, examined adult suicides between 1979 and 1994.  The researchers found that the rate of suicide was lowest in the days before a holiday and highest in the days after the holiday. Similar results have also been found in other countries such as Ireland. In fact, an Irish study that examined adult suicides between 1990 and 1998 found that men were significantly less likely to commit suicide during the holiday season (although there was no difference for Irish women who were equally likely to commit suicide before, during or after the holiday period).

In short, there is little epidemiological evidence to support the notion that the Christmas holidays are a time of increased risk of suicide.

Similar sorts of patterns have also been found in relation to psychiatric admissions. For instance, research from the US showed that the number of psychiatric visits by adults decreases as Christmas approaches but then starts to increase steadily afterwards (suggesting that people are more psychiatrically stable as Christmas nears).

All of this research goes to show that myths can persist despite empirical and scientific evidence to the contrary. No-one knows why such myths are endlessly repeated and recycled year in, year out, but I suspect that something to do with what we psychologists call the ‘representativeness bias’. Basically, if we know or hear of an instance of something very salient (such as someone we know of committing suicide during the festive period), we tend to think that its occurrence is much more common than it really is (especially as we don’t bring to mind all the people we know who didn’t commit suicide over the same period).

Professor Mark Griffiths is based in the Psychology Division of Nottingham Trent University’s School of Social Sciences

Should parents buy videogames for their children at Christmas?

6 12 2010

Playing videogames is arguably the most popular leisure activity in the UK. This Christmas, the sales of videogame hardware and software are likely to be astronomical. But with all the media hype surrounding the more negative aspects of videogame playing, should parents be worried about buying these games for their kids?

Videogame playing is just one of many activities that a child can do this Christmas

Videogame playing is just one of many activities that children can do this Christmas

Back in December 1993, I gave a paper on adolescent videogame addiction at the British Psychological Society Conference that received more publicity than I have ever received for any other piece of research I have ever carried out. It received blanket coverage in all the tabloid and broadsheet newspapers as well as endless radio and television coverage including all the major national news bulletins. In January 1994, I received a letter from a leading videogame company complaining that publication of my mid-December report may have affected their Christmas sales of videogames. The validity of my research was also called into question.

Since 1993, I have arguably published more research papers on videogame addiction than any other academic in the world. However, just because my research has consistently identified a small number of individuals who appear to be addicted to videogames does not mean that I am in any way ‘anti-videogames’. I have three children (aged 9, 11 and 14 years) and they are all archetypal ‘screenagers’ who spend a lot of time playing videogames. I certainly have the view that the positives of playing videogames far outweigh the negatives. I’ve written many articles pointing out the benefits of videogame playing including educational benefits, health benefits, therapeutic benefits, and psychomotor benefits (e.g., hand-eye co-ordination and increased reaction times).

So when it comes to videogames, what should parents do? To begin with parents should actually find out what videogames their children are actually playing! All videogames now feature the PEGI rating system (Pan European Game Information), which not only contains a specific age rating but also specific game content (such as whether the videogame features sex, violence, fear, swearing, gambling, discrimination, etc.). Parents may find that some videogames contain material that they would prefer their children not to be having exposure to. If parents have objections to the content of the games they should facilitate discussion with their kids about this, and if appropriate, have a few rules. For instance, parents should: (i) help choose suitable games that are still fun for their children to play, (ii) talk about the content of the games so that children understand the difference between make-believe and reality, (iii) discourage solitary game playing for long periods, (iv) follow recommendations on the possible risks outlined by videogame manufacturers, and (v) ensure that children have plenty of other activities to pursue in their free time besides the playing of videogames.

It needs to be remembered that videogame playing is just one of many activities that a child can do alongside sporting activities, school clubs, reading, watching television, and socialising with their friends. These can all contribute to a balanced recreational diet. But when does it become a problem? The most asked question a parent wants answering is ‘How much videogame playing is too much?’ To help answer this question, I devised a simple checklist. It is designed to check if a child’s videogame playing is getting out of hand. Ask yourself these simple questions. Does your child:

  • Play videogames almost every day?
  • Often play videogames for long periods (over 3 to 4 hours at a time)? 
  • Play videogames for excitement or ‘buzz’?
  • Get restless, irritable, and moody if they can’t play videogames?
  • Sacrifice social and sporting activities to play videogames?
  • Play videogames instead of doing their homework?
  • Try to cut down their videogame playing but can’t?

If the answer is ‘yes’ to more than four of these questions, then your child may be playing too much and you need to foster other activities to replace the videogame playing. Thankfully, very few children are genuinely addicted to videogames, but as responsible parents it is our job to monitor their videogame playing and there are now plenty of games that we can play along too. I’m sure many of them will be in this year’s Christmas stockings!

Professor Mark Griffiths is Director of the International Gaming Research Unit at Nottingham Trent University. He can be seen on tonight’s Panorama on BBC1 at 8.30pm talking about videogame addiction in young people.