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