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Christmas cards and pine cones

Why you might not be feeling the joy of Christmas

The following article is written by happiness expert and psychologist Dr Melissa Weinberg from Deakin University’s School of Psychology.

It’s assumed people LOVE Christmas. It’s assumed Christmas is a time for celebration, joy, gratitude, and all the good things. There are so many reasons to be happy at this time of year, but what if you just can’t live up to the expectations? Here are some reasons why it can seem like everyone else is into the Christmas spirit, but you’re just more stressed and anxious than ever …

There’s so much pressure to be happy

The problem with a world fixated on the pursuit of happiness is that we think about our happiness way too much. And when there’s constant pressure to be happy, we become more aware of our mood than we need to be. Seeing everyone else’s happy highlights on social media creates an ‘availability bias’, and gives the impression that everyone else is happier than we are. It makes us all wonder what we’re missing out on.

People expect other people to be happy at Christmas time, and if we don’t feel happy, we don’t want to burden others with our sad mood, so we withdraw and try to cope alone.

'Seeing everyone else’s happy highlights on social media creates an ‘availability bias’, and gives the impression that everyone else is happier than we are.'

Dr Melissa Weinberg,
School of Psychology, Deakin University

Feeling lonely at Christmas

The tragic side-effect of promoting happiness and positivity is that when society sees sad mood as a burden, and as a disruption to our world of forced positivity, people who don’t fit the mould are removed from the one thing that could make all the difference to them – social support.

Loneliness is the feeling that even though you might have a lot of people around you, none of them really understand you, and at a time like Christmas where we emphasise family and spending time with loved ones, the absence of close relationships may be all the more salient for those feeling lonely.

Seasonal affective disorder

Doesn’t that happen in winter? No. The term ‘seasonal affective disorder’ describes how our mood is affected by the changing levels of hormones that occur in response to varying levels of sunlight. It’s not specific to the winter months, and ‘reverse-SAD’ or ‘summer-onset SAD’ might explain the way your emotional regulation can be disrupted at this time of year.

Throw into the mix that the heat makes it harder to get quality sleep, our appetite changes with the warm weather, and it’s hard to concentrate when it’s so damn hot, and it’s no wonder the last thing you feel like doing is socialising at the family Christmas barbecue.

When you’d rather forget the year that’s passed

While Christmas may be an opportune time to reflect on the highlights of the past year, it can also be a time where negative emotions are intensified.

For many who have lost a loved one during the year, part of the grieving process means experiencing a number of ‘firsts’ without that person’s presence. The thought of a first Christmas without a loved one can be a source of great sadness and despair, and can reignite feelings of grief and loss.

The normalisation process

When it comes to our happiness, we’re generally pretty good at regulating our emotions. But when we intentionally expose ourselves to heightened stress and worry, the process of recovering our normal state can be experienced as an elevation, as if all the weight is suddenly lifted off our shoulders. In fact, what’s happening is more of a ‘normalisation’, it’s a comforting feeling that everything is right in the world again, that we’ve ‘leveled out’.

If you’re spending the weeks leading up to Christmas rushing around buying gifts, trying to finish tasks before the end of the year, and just hanging out for it all to be over, the sensation that hits on Christmas Day might be more ‘relief’ than anything else.

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Dr Melissa Weinberg
Dr Melissa Weinberg

School of Psychology, Deakin University

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