family of three decorates a Christmas tree in their home

POV: Does decorating for the holidays early improve mental health?

For some it may, but it depends on how you look at it
November 20, 2020

It is November 2020 and the halls are being decked much earlier this year. Several homes around campus have bats, spiders and snowmen all in one yard, showing just how quickly (and early) this transition has occurred. In an emotionally taxing year of pandemics, protests, elections and hurricanes, people are rushing to embrace the spirit of the holidays. Which lends to the question: is there a psychological reason for this widespread behavioral change? Although no specific research on holiday decorations and psychological impact were found, connections can be hypothesized based on the research available. Factors such as anticipation, nostalgia and distraction have all been supported as effective coping mechanisms and methods of promoting wellness.

Anticipation: Looking forward to happier times

Children around the world look forward to the holidays and celebrations with great anticipation. For adults, anticipation is the combination of thoughts and feeling related to what is to come. When people associate positive experiences to the holidays, this time of year can become very rewarding. Neural imaging reveals the activation of the reward system of the brain and an increase of dopamine when there is anticipation of a reward. Looking forward to happier times and surrounding one’s self with decoration and reminders of a brighter future can increase anticipation and feelings of happiness.

Nostalgia: Reflecting on comforting times

Our expectations for the future are often related to our past experiences. Nostalgia relates to a longing for the past, including periods of time and experiences evoking positive emotion, such as peace, comfort, joy and happiness. By decorating early, people may be embracing the comfort found in the nostalgia of the holidays. When a person experiences loneliness, nostalgia can help increase feelings of social connectedness and support. Nostalgia can increase both optimistic perceptions of self and the future, which may lend to the positive emotions and comfort people experience related to holiday decorations.

Distraction: Forgetting current stressors

The holidays, for many, is a special time of year filled with hope, joy and excitement, all of which have been lacking in 2020. Decorating early may allow people to distract themselves from current stressors and focus on holiday memories and traditions. Distraction has been shown to reduce distress and anxiety as compared to rumination. For many, decorating may simply be a nice change in surrounding, as lights and tinsel can brighten up their home.

Perception: Focusing on the positive

No matter what 2020 brings, the days change, the calendar advances and the holidays will come. Along with the holidays, we may find a sense of normalcy and routine; decorations go up, traditions occur and the ideals of peace, love and comfort are embraced.

It is important to note, the psychological benefits of decorating early depends on a person’s perceptions and cognitions. Focusing on positive experiences of the past and future related to the holidays lends to wellness. However, focusing on how different this year will be or the holiday experiences lost due to physical distancing and restrictions can lend to increases in negative emotions, including anxiety and depression. Our thoughts and behaviors affect our emotions and vice versa, so the effect of decorating early for the holidays depends on a person’s focus and actions.

Kelly Sopchak, PhD, LSSP POV AuthorSubscriber
Psychologist III, Program Manager

Kelly Sopchak, PhD, LSSP, is a psychologist with the Telebehavioral Care Program working as the TCHATT (Texas Child Health Access Through Telemedicine) program manager. Utilizing trauma informed care, her work focuses on providing interventions for children and adolescents and developing supports across systems to decrease psychological distress. Dr. Sopchak is passionate about child and adolescent safety and wellness and improving mental health care and services for youth across Texas.

— Kelly Sopchak, PhD, LSSP

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