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You’ve covered your house in lights, trimmed the Christmas tree, hung the stockings by the chimney with care, figured out what sugar plums are, baked gingerbread, and littered the living room with mistletoe. Are all those merry-making activities, enough to ensure that your Christmas is, in fact, a merry one? Science suggests, it can’t hurt either.

Back in 2002, a team of scientists set out to determine the secret to having a holly, jolly Christmas. They surveyed a group of adults ranging from 18 to 80 years of age to try and scientifically determine what makes Christmas merry. They published their results in the Journal of Happiness Studies and the good news is that you’re probably already doing a lot of what makes the season so special.

Turns out that heading over-the-river and through-the-woods to grandmother’s house, isn’t just a catchy tune. The researchers found that holiday cheer came from spending time with family, including visiting relatives. Other signs of a merry Christmas were maintaining Christmas traditions like trimming the tree or singing carols helped people feel happier during the holidays, as did sharing Christmas meals, raising a glass of nog, and generally doing the whole eat, drink, and be merry thing actually worked, making people feel merrier.

They also found that people who engaged in religious activities (a.k.a. they spent some time remembering the reason for the season) reported greater “Christmas well-being,” which included fewer negative emotions, such as sadness. Helping others, giving money to those bell-ringing Santas, opening their homes, and donating to good causes also helped people feel merrier during the holidays.

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On the other hand, people who spent a great deal of money during the Christmas season and focused on the more materialistic aspects of the holidays, including receiving gifts, were more likely to be unhappy during the holidays. The researchers found that materialism was associated with lower Christmas well-being, including more negative emotions like sadness. In addition, spending money was associated with greater stress and even receiving gifts was found to lower enthusiasm and other positive emotions. This isn’t to say that giving and receiving Christmas gifts is bad in anyway, just that making it the focus of the holidays can lead to less happiness.

That said, most people genuinely like Christmas as it tends to produce more happiness than stress. Nearly 75% of the folks who responded to the survey said they were satisfied with their Christmas holiday. Only 44% reported experiencing stress, and they may have been the folks who waited until the last minute to do their shopping and had to elbow their way through the mall.

At the end of the paper, the study’s authors concluded: “The path to a merry Christmas comes not from purchasing many expensive gifts at the mall, wrapping them, and placing them under the tree, but instead from satisfying deeper needs to be close to one's family and find meaning in life.” Amen to that.

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