Origins of holiday cheer not entirely unique to the season

It’s that time of year again. With the year’s most popular holidays all falling in the span of just a couple months, the holiday season takes the country by storm as the winter air rolls in every year. We have holiday-themed sales, foods, parties, movies, and more to look forward to before year’s end. It’s no surprise that we also strongly associate this time of the year with happiness. We prepare for these holidays months in advance while waiting impatiently for their arrival; it’s certainly an exciting and widely anticipated time of the year for most. Yet why exactly is this time of year seen as such a happy one? We spend an obscene amount of money on items we don’t need in a short window of time; we’re bombarded with advertisements and by crazy shoppers; it’s cold and crappy out; illness is in the air; and the foods associated with the holidays are not exactly friends to your waistline. These observations are no secret, and yet the season is still a quite happy and cheery time of year.

Upon searching the Internet, I came across two TED videos that may at least partially explain holiday cheeriness. Both were centered on the very general notion of happiness and how to achieve it. One featured Michael Norton, an Associate Professor of Business Administration at Harvard, who spoke of the relationship between money and happiness. When we think of happiness, a dichotomy often emerges. Some think of a luxurious lifestyle, filled with riches and expensive toys, while others view that life as corruptive and fake, clinging to the popular thought that money cannot buy happiness. Both are wrong, claims Norton. Money can actually buy happiness; it just depends on how we spend it or, rather, who we spend it on. Norton describes how recipients of large sums of money, like the lottery, have a tendency to spend it all too quickly and on luxurious or expensive items for themselves.

The money also seems to ruin relationships with people because everyone harasses the recipient for money. The person begins to think that their friendships are predicated on their ownership of money, which leads the desire for seclusion and isolation. Thus, if the goal is to attain happiness, perhaps we are spending our money the wrong way. Norton states that spending money on other people increases our happiness as opposed to spending it on ourselves. He conducted multiple experiments that demonstrated how spending money on other people created a pro-social environment that fostered greater interpersonal cohesion and happiness for the giver. It didn’t matter what the gift was, whether it was a small trinket or life-saving malaria medication. What mattered was that we used our resources on someone other than ourselves (“How to buy happiness,” 04.24.2012). Hence, having a pro-social mindset and changing our spending habits to focus more on others than ourselves—even if it is in small ways­—will increase our own happiness level.

The other video presented Brother David Steindl-Rast, a Benedictine monk, who also spoke of the key to happiness. His method was unsurprisingly less materialistic, highlighting gratefulness as the driving force behind happiness. Some are under the impression that happy people are grateful, yet he claims that grateful people are happy. He defines gratefulness as the feeling experienced when we are truly given something of value. Grateful living is the key to sustainable happiness. Steindl-Rast states that every moment, with its opportunities, is a valuable gift and thus a source of gratefulness. Yet we rush through life and overlook these opportunities, missing out on the feeling of gratitude and thus happiness. He emphasizes slowing down and ‘building stop signs’ in our lives to fully realize the opportunities provided in each given moment (, “Want to be happy? Be grateful”, 11.27.2013). That way, we can appreciate what we have, act in ways that maximize our sense of gratitude and be happy.

So what do these general beliefs about happiness have to do with the holiday season? A lot actually. If spending money on others leads to higher life satisfaction, the holiday season must surely be one happy time, with all of the gift giving and emphasis on generosity, helping those who are less fortunate and expressing other acts of charitable behavior. We can even broaden Norton’s argument further to cover not just money but resources in general, like time, effort or other tangible donations. If there is ever a time for a mass-giving of our resources, it is during holiday season. Furthermore, the holidays can be seen as a time of ‘grateful living’ as Steindl-Rast would say. It may not seem like it, but the holiday season is our stop sign to look back at the year behind us and appreciate everything we have achieved.

The season places an importance on thankfulness and gratitude for what we have—the source of happiness, according to the monk. The given moments of value are realized during the holiday season, spending these times with friends and family and using the opportunities provided to make each other happy. Thus, what these two compelling speakers had to say about happiness can be seen in the holiday season. In addition to what was highlighted in the TED videos, there is also a sense of rebirth with the emerging new year. We make resolutions and feel like we have new opportunities awaiting us, leaving behind the past year’s misfortunes. Starting fresh could certainly lead to an increased level of happiness and hopefulness.

Yet why does the happiness involved with holidays have to stay with the holidays? The sources of holiday cheer described above aren’t specific to a certain time of year; they can be a part of every-day life. Every day is a new beginning that gives us infinite moments of opportunities for which to be grateful. We have the ability to give our time, money, or other resources to others at any point of the year. By pinpointing some of the sources of holiday happiness, we can extend and maintain that level of cheer year-round.

—Angela Della Croce ’15 is an economics major.

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