The psychology of Christmas: Why do the festivities impact us so deeply?

From gift giving to perfecting a poker face, our minds interact closely with seasonal cues

The dopamine hit of shopping is not just for Christmas. Photograph: iStock

The dopamine hit of shopping is not just for Christmas. Photograph: iStock

 

“There are so many intricate psychologies, which we are not even aware of, when it comes to Christmas,” says Gillian Fagan, founder of Acora Therapy in Lucan and chief executive officer of Under the Rainbow Therapy Centre in Dublin city centre. “It’s presented as an opportunity to relax, catch up with loved ones, with social permission to treat ourselves, and yet so many of us get caught up in the hype, stress, and pressure of Christmas.”

The popularity of social celebrations such as Christmas is partially credited to the psychology that sits behind these festivities and how the human mind interacts to the powers at play (of which there are many). The wafting scent of mulled wine, the sparkling tinsel and gentle but upbeat sultry tones of old Christmas tunes send us into a spasm of tradition, memory and expectations. So what is really behind Christmas and how does it so explicitly affect us in an emotional way?

Psychology of Buying

The dopamine hit of shopping is not just for Christmas but certainly has a way of being amplified as we find our way through a long and lingering Christmas wish list. “Dopamine is a neurotransmitter that gives us a sense of pleasure,” says Fagan. “When we get excited about buying something, the perfect gift, finding the party outfit, imagining other people’s reactions, we release dopamine. We want to feel pleasure and are more inclined to buy items we believe will boost our happiness. These decisions are more made on impulse though, influenced by the shopping environment and fuelled by the increase of dopamine in that moment.”

Clever marketing has a way of increasing that dopamine hit with the promise of special offers, seasonal packaging and tapping into the “scarcity” theory with “a pressure to purchase”.

“The heat of shops contrasting the cold outside, the smells, music, flashing Christmas lights and overcrowding overwhelm our cognitive processing, impacting our decision making,” says Fagan. “Our brains don’t think rationally when we are under stress. We are more likely to buy in a hurry without thinking a purchase through.”

Psychology of Gift Giving

“A lot of pressure is put on us to find the perfect gift,” says Fagan, an equality and inclusion trainer, psychotherapist, counsellor and psychological coach, “with data showing we spend more on other people than on ourselves at this time of year. Unconsciously ‘the gift’ reflects the type of relationship we have with the person and how important it is that they like us.

“Studies show that spending money on other people can make you happier than spending it on yourself. While spending money can lead to financial stress it can also boost happiness. It is important to know your financial limits when shopping this season. Research has shown that most of us prefer to receive a gift that took time and effort to source than one that cost a lot. It’s the thought that counts more than the price tag.”

Psychology of the Poker Face

For many of us, Christmas can be all consuming as we gather with friends or family we rarely see, unwelcome visitors, or relatives we have a strained relationship with. A gathering could result in simply trying to “grin and bear it”. Unwelcome gifts and family stresses can make Christmas an awkward time, so we learn to adopt a poker face to hide our true feelings.

“There are those enlightened souls who radiate joy and gratitude regardless of the circumstances,” says Joseph McGuire, body language and face reading expert. “It’s manifested in the full Duchenne smile, where the corners of the mouth turn upwards, the eyes crinkle and sparkle, and the message is one of ease, happiness, and welcome.”

At Christmas when our true feelings may remain hidden the “social smile” may take precedence. “The one where only the mouth responds but the eyes remain open,” says McGuire. “The gaze is cold or glazed and we want the moment to be over. As approximately two thirds of our communication is non-verbal, this can lead to accusations of disinterest, coldness and contribute to already simmering tension.

“For the body language expert there is really no such thing as a poker face as every facial expression – or apparent lack thereof – is revealing. We consider the micro-expressions which appear fleetingly and reveal what someone is feeling in the moment. I strongly advise practising smiling on a daily basis long before Christmas arrives,” says McGuire. “Smile at the cashier in the supermarket or when buying coffee. More than any other single expression or aspect of body language it conveys relaxation, friendship, appreciation and welcome. It also indicates that we are not a threat, and that is a reason to be grateful in these challenging times. A smile is not just for Christmas.”

Psychology of Traditions

“While we are autonomous individuals with our own moods, experiences, and behaviours, we are social creatures,” says Fagan. “We are members of groups that shape our cultures, beliefs, and traditions and provide us with psychological acceptance and belonging. This can make us feel under even more pressure to conform to the expectations of the Christmas period as our brain already has a script of our feelings and experiences from previous holidays.”

We are creatures of habit and favour the familiar, especially in times of change, says Fagan. “Our brains automatically process the world around us, forming our cognitive biases,” she says. “Remember all day every day our brains are constructing our emotional reality. This year we will potentially be even more nostalgic than we usually are at Christmas. The nostalgia of the traditions, same music, same movies, decorating and food calls out to us. We will always keep some of our traditions as letting them go feels like letting go of a part of our identity.”

Psychology of Fomo

Social media has increased our fear of missing out (Fomo) which many of us experience at this time of year. “Fomo is the perception that other people are happier and having more fun than you,” says Fagan. “It impacts self-esteem, leaving you with a sense of envy, feeling excluded and self-criticism when you compare your life to the highlights of someone else’s social media persona. We all want to experience the ‘true meaning of Christmas’ which implies that there is an ideal that we have to conform to. Marketers sell this ideology to us well before Christmas. Just think of your favourite Christmas TV advertisement. It was created to psychologically impact your sense of nostalgia and to sell the magic of Christmas.

“Tune into how you are feeling to better manage the overwhelm, reduce your social media consumption to reduce comparative behaviours, remember gratitude comes from the thought rather than the price tag and remind yourself that it’s okay to say no to some social invitations; look at where you can flip Fomo to Jomo, the joy of missing out.”

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