As holiday season approaches, many of us must reflect on what exactly will make the holidays most joyous.
In a fascinating study from 2002, a pair of researchers asked over a hundred people about their stress and happiness during the holidays, including questions about consumption behavior. They found that family-based or religious celebrations tended to result in the greatest levels of happiness, as opposed to materialist consumption practices.
While the holidays, and especially in the United States, Christmas have long and complicated histories, Drs. Tim Kassier and Kennon Sheldon explain how they tie together many different strands of tradition.
These include, of course, religious practices, rooted both in Christianity but in a variety of other faiths, but that these practices have also been tied to secular celebrations of Santa Claus, for instance. This isn’t even including the commercialist and materialist elements of the modern holiday season.
It is this historical and cultural framework that motivated their survey study. Specifically, they interviewed participants as to how they spent their Christmas, such as volunteering, worshipping, spending time with family, or exchanging/purchasing gifts.
Similarly, participants were also asked more detailed questions about how much money they spent on gifts and material consumption, how much they donated, and what the material value was of gifts that they had received.
Finally, the researchers inquired into questions of environmental consumption, such as trash produced or energy consumed as a part of their holiday practices. Perhaps counter-intuitively, they theorized that the more sustainable participants’ practices were, the happier they would end up feeling around the holidays.
Each of these questions was included in quantifiable measures in order to test the extent to which they predicted a happier or less pleasant Christmas season. Overall, most people reported a generally satisfactory Christmas, while just under half reported that they experienced a great deal of stress.
In terms of what tended to predict a better holiday, each of the measures of family engagement and religious activity were strong positive predictors. This may be due to the inherent satisfaction of either activity, or out of the feeling that people are conforming to the socially expected emphasis of the holiday.
However, this latter point is undermined by the strong social pressures to engage in a consumptive and materially-focused holiday season. Neither expenditure, nor receipt, or great sums of gifts consistently predicted positive experiences. Often, the opposite was true. Moreover, environmentally sustainable practices tended to predict positive experiences.
This is not to tell you how to spend your holiday, of course, but given the extreme levels of stress that so many people experience around holidays, this will hopefully give you some sense as to what relieves the stress of others and promotes their happiness.