Ross Gittins Sydney Morning Herald December 22, 2015
The beauty of Christmas is that it's a time when everyone's happy. Well, not quite. Better to say, it's a time when everyone tries to be happy, but we succeed in varying degrees. When Dr Peter Clarke, of Griffith Business School in Brisbane, surveyed 450 people to ascertain the nature of "Christmas spirit", he found it had five components: bonhomie, gay abandon, ritual, shopping and a little bit of dejection. Yes. We all have periods of less-than-perfect bliss and perhaps we don't have any more of them at Christmas than at other times; it just feels that way because we expect to be happy at Christmas and are surrounded by people trying so hard to be.
Perhaps. But my guess is more of us do experience periods of unhappiness at Christmas. There are those who, for various reasons, have no family or friends with whom to celebrate, or those who miss those now missing.
Then there's all the distress arising from overadministration of that substance supposed to magically generate good moods. Too many hangovers after too many Christmas parties, regretted behaviour at the office party (this year, Fairfax Media employees received a stern warning that no tolerance would be shown), things said around the dinner table that would have been better left unsaid. Old wounds opened.Yes, Christmas has its share of unhappiness, even if just the wish we hadn't eaten (or spent) so much. There are, of course, a few traps that can be avoided.
If, as some clerics allege, materialism has become our dominant religion, Christmas must surely be our most sacred economic festival. But the evidence suggests that's not the way to wellbeing. I've said it before, but it's one of my strongest conclusions after decades of economy-watching, so I'll say it again: the trick to succeeding in the capitalist system is to say no to most of the blandishments of the capitalists.
Professor Tim Kasser, a psychologist at Knox College, Illinois, and Kennon Sheldon, a professor of psychology at the University of Missouri, wanted to determine what makes for a merry Christmas. They asked 117 people of varying ages questions about their satisfaction, stress and emotional state during the Christmas season, as well as questions about their experiences, use of money and consumption behaviour. They found that those who most remembered family and religious experiences were happier than those for whom spending money and receiving gifts were the main things they remained conscious of.
Of course, for many of us, religious experiences are no longer part of Christmas. Don't take this the wrong way – I'm not on a recruiting drive – but I suspect those who retain a religious commitment already have "man's search for meaning" sorted, while the rest of us can spend a lot of time looking for substitutes.
All those claims that the environment or economics or libertarianism or a dozen other things have become "the new religion" are unconsciously affirming that humans function better when they have something to believe in, something outside and above their own self-centred concerns.
There's psychological evidence to support that. It doesn't have to be the Christian religion, however. And other research has shown that a big part of the benefit people get from church-going, or its equivalent, is social contact and membership of a group.
One advantage of a religious upbringing that's of particular relevance at Christmas is an instinctive understanding that, to quote some chap supposed to have been born at this time, "it is more blessed to give than to receive". Think of Christmas as about giving rather than receiving and you're well advanced towards a happier time. And, naturally, there's empirical support for the notion.
A study by Elizabeth Dunn and Lara Aknin, of the University of British Columbia, and Michael Norton, of Harvard Business School, first asked a sample of 632 Americans to rate their general happiness, report their annual income and estimate how much they spent on bills and expenses, gifts for themselves, gifts for others and donations to charity.They found that personal spending was uncorrelated with happiness, whereas higher "pro-social spending" correlated with significantly greater happiness.
Next, 16 employees were tested for their happiness well before and well after they received a profit-sharing bonus. They found that those who devoted more of their bonus to spending on other people or a charity experienced greater happiness after receiving the bonus. And how they spent their bonus was a better predictor of happiness than the size of the bonus itself.
This, of course, is just a narrower application of the much-noted principle that happiness can only be achieved indirectly. If you want to end up realising you're happy, focus on increasing the happiness of others, not your own.
In discovering all these studies, I must acknowledge the assistance of the British psychologist, Dr Jeremy Dean, author of the blogsite PsyBlog. I'm indebted to him for drawing to my attention a study by Vohs, Wang, Gino and Norton, which finds that engaging in ritualised behaviour enhances the enjoyment of food, particularly if it makes you wait a little longer.
So, Christmas rituals are important. In my family, we repeat a short but almost incomprehensible Scottish grace by Rabbie Burns that our mother taught us, to the bemusement of in-laws.
Have a happy one.
Twitter: @1RossGittins [Abbrev.]