Sending Christmas cards linked with lower levels of depression, study finds

University of Limerick researchers suggest that a sudden change of habitual card sending could be a red flag that someone may be struggling

The death of the Christmas card has been greatly exaggerated in the virtual age with the pandemic seeing a dramatic return of the old-school season’s greetings and new research pointing to the mental health benefits of sending and receiving cards.

A study carried out in the University of Limerick (UL) has linked the sending of Christmas cards with lower levels of depression. Researchers have also suggested that a change of habitual card sending could be a red flag that someone may be struggling over the Christmas season.

The research was led by Prof Stephen Gallagher, director of the Study of Anxiety Stress and Health Lab at the university, and published in the journal Cogent Psychology. It examined whether the sending of Christmas cards offered insight into the sender’s mental wellbeing.

Using data from more than 2,400 people who took part in the UK’s Understanding Society Wave 5 data set, the UL researchers extracted information as to whether individuals sent Christmas cards.

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“While many of the behavioural characteristics displayed by people with depression are well known, here, for the first time, we demonstrate that a Christmas behaviour, or the sending of Christmas cards, is also affected,” said Prof Gallagher.

“We found that approximately 55 per cent of non-depressed people reported ‘always’ sending Christmas cards, compared to 46 per cent of those with depression.

The researchers also looked at other findings that showed “expressing gratitude in letters and cards has been found to boost positive emotions in both the receiver and sender”.

“We found that it was more than just the exchange of pleasantries and good wishes over the festive season,” Prof Gallagher said, with evidence pointing to the senders’ mood as influencing their Christmas behaviour.

“If you do not hear from someone who regularly sends you a Christmas card, it might be worth checking in with them to spread some Christmas cheer,” said Dr Jennifer McMahon, a lecturer in psychology at UL and a co-author on the study.

Elaine Kellegher did not need a scientific study to tell her about the positive benefits of the card business, although the card designer welcomed the findings.

She began designing and selling quirky Christmas cards from her Dublin home in 2016 and said she went into it without any market research and despite people telling her the idea of sending cards was on the way out.

“I really started making the cards because I wanted to use my design skills but as soon as I started selling the cards, I noticed there was a demand there and it grew and grew and then when the pandemic hit it just shot up, it was unbelievable,” she said.

“People couldn’t see each other or physically touch each other so they wanted to send tangible tings. Even seeing someone’s handwriting was a way to connect.”

She sells online and in artisan food and coffee shops as well as gift shops. “These are not pound shop cards and they are for people who want something different. Demand is still really good this year and I think people are very keen to support Irish designers and buy Irish products.”

She said her largest customer base is those aged 25-40. “I don’t think we have seen the end of the Christmas card just yet and I think like many things it has come back into fashion. People want that feelgood factor and like that study from the University of Limerick, I have read others that show how good people feel when they send and when they receive Christmas cards so it is a win-win.”

Anna McHugh of An Post also extolled – unsurprisingly – the virtues of sending a card this Christmas.

“We all have the best of intentions to stay in touch with friends and relations but yet too often the year draws to a close without us actually managing to make the trip or arrange the night out. A Christmas card with a personal message helps keep the connection alive, and let that person or family know that you haven’t forgotten them, that they are still important to you,” she said.

She said mindfulness coaches “recommend that we make our card writing a pleasurable activity, taking an afternoon or evening to get comfortable and to reflect upon the past year and our friendships and family connections.”

As a result of the recent cold weather, she said, “stamp sales are actually well ahead of this time last year”.

“We’re hoping that the icy temperatures forecast for the coming week will keep everyone focused on the fact that Christmas is less than three weeks away!”

Conor Pope

Conor Pope

Conor Pope is Consumer Affairs Correspondent, Pricewatch Editor and cohost of the In the News podcast