The best holiday behaviors are scientifically proven to make people feel better. Here’s to that kind of health and happiness next year.
I hope you are having a good time with people you care about and who care about you. That’s something to look forward to during the holidays, but most of us could use more days like that all year.
The holidays aren’t the same for everyone, of course. Christmas is for many Americans a deeply religious time to remember a father’s gift to the world. For many others it’s an opportunity to shop, eat and mingle. At its best, for most people this time of year is about kindness, togetherness and giving.
Why not spread some of that cheer around the rest of the year? Christmas may be spiritual, but there is science there, too, and it shows that good deeds, smiles and a little downtime are good for us.
I got used to full-on Christmas while our son was growing up — the tree with presents piled under it, lights strung outdoors, lots of food. Now he’s a graduate student, and this week he’s overseas, so my wife and I and my father-in-law are having a more modest Christmas. That prompted me to think about how the holiday has changed for us over the years and what was most important to preserve and to practice more at other times.
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One of the good things about holidays is that they disrupt the routine of daily life, which makes space for thinking — at least if we don’t succumb to the urge to fill the holiday with tasks, obligations and busyness that soaks up our time. Some of that activity is part of the holiday, and even fun, but it’s good to have a break, too.
Psychologists say downtime gives your brain a chance to work through things. A little idleness spurs creativity and helps with problem-solving. Being productively idle takes discipline today because our cellphones are always calling to us. But it’s a gift we can give to ourselves all year.
Gift-giving doesn’t have to be limited to special occasions, of course, and a gift doesn’t have to be an object. A lot of recent research finds that people often value experiences over stuff. Shared experiences are especially important. As our son was growing up, our family Christmases became less about what was under the tree and more about going to plays or working on projects together. Each year it became clearer that the shared experiences were sometimes more meaningful than physical gifts.
People can even give themselves experiences while giving another kind of gift to someone else, by volunteering. Sometimes people spend a day or two volunteering for the holidays, but nonprofits, schools and other organizations need help all year. And research says volunteering can be good for your health.
Giving is almost always a two-way street that benefits both the giver and the receiver. And one of the easiest holiday gifts to give all year is a smile.
It doesn’t require time or money, just a willingness to be pleasant, and it returns a good dividend.
No matter what mood you start out in, smiling tells your brain that you are happy. Research finds that the expression on your face can affect how you feel inside. And your expression affects the people you interact with. If you smile, most people will return your smile, feel better themselves and maybe smile at someone else. You or I could make a roomful of people feel better, or worse, depending on our demeanor.
Maybe you’ve just read the paper and are feeling down about the news. You really should get your smile back because people who are in a funk aren’t likely to contribute to fixing the world.
And smiling has a bonus effect: Other people think you look more attractive and more intelligent when you smile.
I hope you’re looking great right now and that you’ll carry a smile into the new year.