Typically, I don’t do much in terms of decorating for Christmas in my apartment in Washington, D.C., because I leave town to be with family in California. But this year, I’ve embraced decorating (and doing so early) for other holidays—as a way to freshen up my space and give myself a soothing focal point while I work from home—and I’m planning to do the same for Christmas… starting right after Thanksgiving. This fall, for instance, when my sense of Halloween nostalgia hit especially hard, I adorned my tables and shelves with ceramic pumpkins, and my walls with garlands of felt bats and ghosts. (I also packed my weekends with seasonal activities, including trips to a nearby pumpkin patch and a party to carve jack-o’-lanterns.) I found that the more I engaged with the season, the happier I felt.
“Decorating around the holidays can give us a little spike of feel-good hormones that can scientifically boost our mood.”—Neha Chaudhary, MD, psychiatrist
It turns out that decorating for the holidays can be a happiness-promoting activity in and of itself, “giving us a little spike of feel-good hormones that can scientifically boost our mood,” says double board-certified child and adolescent psychiatrist Neha Chaudhary, MD, chief medical officer at workplace mental health care platform Modern Health. (The warm, fuzzy feeling I get as I hang ornaments and parse out the spacing between my figurines is no coincidence, after all.) That’s especially powerful this time of year given its association with seasonal affective disorder (SAD) or the “winter blues,” which describe the negative impact of the often chilly, dark days of winter on mood for many.
Much of the reason why decorating for the holidays can spark such joy has to do with its connection to ritual and nostalgia, which can render life more meaningful1. “For some people, decorating can remind them fondly of previous memories associated with the holiday season,” says Dr. Chaudhary. For instance, in my case, decorating calls to mind the other joyous rituals I associate with Christmas, like cozying up to watch holiday movies and baking cookies while listening to carols. (For the same reason, it’s worth noting that for those who may connect not-so-happy memories to the holiday season, decorating could actually prompt a negative mood or stir up sad or angry feelings.)
According to Dr. Chaudhary, the positive rituals we perform can also imbue us with a sense of comfort, stability, and belonging. For me, trimming my family’s tree with ornaments I’ve collected year-round on various adventures has always sweetened the meaning of an activity that wouldn’t mean much at all if not for the memories and routine attached to it. It’s no wonder doing the same kind of decorating for the holidays in my apartment may conjure the same warm feelings—and doing it early in the season can just extend those feel-good benefits.
Not to mention the inherent mood-boosting potential of an activity that involves getting creative and working with your hands. “For some people, decorating can be a type of mindful activity that keeps them present and focused in a way that’s good for mental health,” adds Dr. Chaudhary.
Given that the decorations I’ve long arranged in the days before Christmas remain packed in the closets of my family’s California home, I’ve made a recent project of gathering my own for my D.C. apartment. At the moment, I’m working on thrifting a Christmas village, and I plan on hanging a garland of gold stars. For my mini Christmas tree, I’m also ready to add some new ornaments I picked out on a recent trip to the department store Liberty, in London. As the darkness of winter quickly approaches, I know that these glowing touches will be a welcome light.
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- Van Tilburg, Wijnand A., et al. “How Nostalgia Infuses Life with Meaning: From Social Connectedness to Self-continuity.” European Journal of Social Psychology, vol. 49, no. 3, 2019, pp. 521-532, doi.org/10.1002/ejsp.2519.