Martorella: Happy holidays

Thanksgiving is over. Are your holiday decorations up yet?  If so, recent studies say you are probably happier than the average Joe.

Apparently, the data indicates that those who decorate earlier are usually happier than those who wait.

Researchers cite nostalgia as one of the potential sources of these good feelings, with the holiday atmosphere evoking positive memories from childhood, returning us to a more carefree time, providing an escape from the stress of the present, perhaps even reconnecting us with those we have lost. Who knows, maybe there is something about the scent of evergreen. Maybe all the twinkling lights help thwart seasonal affective disorder brought on by the shorter days.

OK, that all makes sense. But when I see studies like these, I can’t help but dissect their findings. My questions usually go back to the old chicken and egg dilemma, which in this case would be: Does a happier person decorate earlier or does one become happier after decorating?

When do they even measure the happiness of the individual in these studies?  

Do they have a database of baseline “happy” and baseline “sad” people that they check in with in October, November, and December to see who is ahead on their decorating?

Or do they measure someone’s happiness level randomly and then ask, “By the way, when did you start your holiday decorating?” If so, are they asking about the current holiday season while it’s in progress, or are they asking the respondent to reflect back on last year (because, you know, memories can be fuzzy)?  And how is “happiness” even defined?

I know I’m probably getting a little too particular here. I was once told I should pursue a career in research, but I’m thinking I probably would have never gotten a report written. Too many variables to consider, so many ways to overthink, especially when I apply a study to myself.

My decorations are up, but it’s not because I was filled with the Christmas spirit early, blasting Christmas carols and pumping my home full of holiday scents since Halloween.

Honestly, the four day spread over Thanksgiving weekend was just an easier time to put them up. We had the time, the manpower, and bored children that needed something to do. It wasn’t even my idea, but when my husband asked me to make room for the tree, I knew if I didn’t move quickly to clear the space and bring out the ornaments, then he and the kids might do it. The chaos that would likely ensue from that would definitely not increase my happiness.

Now that the decorating is mostly done, I imagine I am happier than if not, because it’s a big thing to check off my to-do list. But my happiness meter fluctuates daily throughout the holiday season, sometimes hourly. There are many tasks and obstacles that can bring it down, but then there is a lot of joy and fun that can bring it up, sometimes all at the same time.

It’s like this: Thinking about decorating, happy. Starting the preparation process, still happy.

But pretty soon, “make room for the tree” leads to reorganizing the living room and moving furniture into other rooms that then need reorganizing, then to cleaning out the coat closet to fit in stray clutter requiring a major sorting through outgrown shoes and coats.

“Digging out the decorations” leads to another closet purge along with decoration re-evaluation. And eventually, there is a trickle-down that ends up with me cleaning out the guinea pig cage (trust me, that is a logical path in my house).  Somewhere in the middle of this inevitable one-project-begets-another cycle, I’m really, really not so happy anymore.

Of course, when all of these projects are complete and we’re ready to decorate it feels like a real accomplishment – happy again! Put on the Christmas music, start unwrapping memories, happy! Struggle to string the lights, not so happy. Kids join in, happy!  Kids fight over ornaments, not so happy. And so on throughout all the craziness of the season.

That’s just the inside. Another study showed that people perceive those in homes with outdoor decorations as friendlier. Our outdoor decorations have nothing to do with how friendly we are, just how weather-tolerant we are. Our lights go up on the warmest day, that’s it. We are lucky this year, but there have been past years when that task did not make me happy (or friendly), not at all.

As we move into January, we’ll take it all down and wait 11 months to do it all again. Or maybe we’ll just leave our decorations up until next season. That should make for a very happy new year.

Rebecca Martorella, LMFT welcomes ideas and comments and can be reached at [email protected]