A Hit of Happiness

Why Decorating for the Holidays May Boost Your Mental Health

The holidays have been a bit harder than usual this year—but whether you’re trimming a tree, lighting a menorah, gathering around a turkey, or simply hanging paper snowflakes and snowmen around the room, doing it all sooner than later may help improve your mood beyond just an initial hit of holiday spirit.

As we head into our second pandemic holiday season, it’s clear that mental health is still taking a collective hit—so it makes sense that you may be feeling even more stressed and anxious this time around.

“Society isn’t going to be the same, with or without Covid. Too much has changed. Making the choice to look at this holiday season as an opportunity to start new by incorporating traditions and experiences,” says Sheila Babendir, EdD LPC, who is currently College Academic Director of Counseling at University of Phoenix.

“Decorating is a joyful experience and helps to signal that life continues despite bad things that have happened. There may still be sadness, however, the strategy is to infuse some joy and some hope along with the sadness. That sadness doesn’t have to go away for you to still be able to experience some happiness.”

Move a muscle, change a thought. 

Changing the focus from what has been lost or changed during covid to can be celebrated now, even if the country isn’t perfect, is a way to change the mood, she continues. It is also contagious, which can be good for collective mental health.

“When one person begins to show celebratory behavior, and exude a positive mood, others will start to join in. Social behavior theory supports that people follow others in their social circle and copy behaviors, especially behaviors that are mood activating,” she says.

“We know that being around pleasant smells, lights that twinkle, and being around different colors and decorations has a positive impact on the brain,” said Dr. Jesse Hanson, a psychotherapist specializing in trauma, anxiety, and depression and an advisor at Rehab.com.

The act of gathering as a family to decorate the Christmas tree or putting up decorations around the house brings positive feelings and a sense of connection to people, he says, so something as simple as moving your body to get the decorations up can also help.

“Considering the isolation factor and the reality that a lot of people are still going to be separated from their loved ones, there are ways to make decorating even more meaningful,” says Dr. Hanson. “Taking videos and photos of the decorations and sharing that with your loved ones could also help because it spreads the joy and spreads the spirit of the special season.”

Holiday Cheer, Scientifically Speaking

Because various regions of the brain react to different aspects of creativity, musical, verbal and visuospatial creativity each affect a different region of the brain causing those regions to increase activity and to activate positive moods, says Babendir.

“From a cognitive behavioral theory perspective, what a person thinks about triggers an emotion, which will trigger a reaction or a behavior. The key to changing the emotion is either changing the thought or changing the action. The activity of actually putting up decorations is a behavior. The act of thinking about decorating triggers a different mood because the thoughts have changed.”

Being creative is another booster: studies have shown that creativity is enhanced when someone is in a positive mood and lowered creativity correlates with negative moods, says Babendir.

“Acting creatively and engaging in creative endeavors will affect our mood and increase the positive neurons firing in our brain. The more positive the feeling, the more motivated energy toward enhanced creativity. It becomes a positive cycle where creativity feeds the mood and the mood feeds the creativity.”

Virtual Joy

Since many families may still be apart this Holiday season, decorating with things that bring their presence into the room, like photo ornaments or displaying a meaningful object from a loved one can “help you connect emotionally” with them. Taking videos and photos of the decorations and sharing that with your loved ones could also help because it spreads the joy and spreads the spirit of the special season, says Babendir.

Additionally, hosting a decorating party virtually with friends or family can also create a sense of togetherness.

Outdoor decorating when others in the neighborhood are also putting up their decorations will increase the social atmosphere safely,” she said.

A Welcome Reprieve 

As long as she can remember, Beck Swersky, a mother of three living in Kansas,  has decorated as early as possible for the holidays. This year, she started on November 1.

“It’s so easy to get caught up in the frenetic energy of long lines, shipping deadlines, stressing about the perfect gift, or trying to stay on budget. As an adult and parent, it’s a huge project that requires so much energy,” she says. “I found that decorating my home, especially on the early side, allows me a bubble to experience the childlike wonder and excitement I had about the holidays as a child before I get caught up in the machinations of managing the holidays.”

“It’s important in all areas of our lives as adults to remain as childlike as possible, to approach the world with a beginner’s mind, and have fresh eyes on our world,” Swersky says. “Decorating for the holidays feels like an opportunity to play, to be whimsical, and to create a space in our home that honors our inner child.”

Activating All Five Senses

Using all of your senses when decorating will increase the brain’s capacity to be immersed in the moment and to feel a sense of well-being, Babendir says, since the brain responds to the sensory input.

“Increase positive memories and increase mood with smells such as apple cider, baked cookies or evergreen tree smells. Use music to enhance mood and choose those songs that make you feel good.  Put on clothing that feels good and allow the tactile sense to add to your overall experience,” she says. “Breathe deeply and take in the energy around you especially if you are decorating outdoors or have the aromas circling in the background.  Set up your experience to immerse your senses with the “feel goods”.

Smells can be used to send a brain message of peacefulness—think of how many smells can be used during the holiday to calm the body.

“Creating soothing visual landscape within the home to experience a sense of calm. Consider using more candles or small lights for a less stressful environment. The sense of taste changes emotions quickly especially using strong flavors to shift away from difficult emotions,” Babandir says.

Reality Is Still Reality….

“With the discord, the pandemic, the isolation, and general fear and uncertainty we face decorating this year can be such a safe haven. We’ve all lost so much, our loved ones, our freedom, jobs, sense of security, etc.  This is an opportunity for us to get quiet, and soothe ourselves with nostalgia, warmth and familiarity in a chaotic world.  I think it’s also an chance for us to have a reset of our hearts. The act of creating a warm and inviting home, caring for our loved ones, creating an experience for them is such an act of love, and I think it can remind us to take that energy out into the world around us more often,” says Swersky.

And because sometimes the holidays can be hard for people because something sad happened around this time of year, or because they have lost a loved one, Swersky says that pinning photos of lost loved ones pinned to our tree branches with old clothes pins always makes them feel like their loved ones are near.

“We have a tradition of making special cookie recipes that were handed down to us from my great grandparents, and my children’s grandparents. Seeing old recipe cards, handwritten in my grandmother’s flowery penmanship with stains from foods she cooked is a connection to her unlike any other.”

If Decorating Isn’t Quite Your “Thing” 

Try cooking a family recipe in order to reignite memories from good times spent with loved ones, says Dr. Hanson.

“The act of cooking and sharing food like a cookie swap with your family and friends can bring a sense of joy and accomplishment, “ he says. “Another fun holiday tradition is caroling. Singing with your friends and family, even on Zoom, is a way to engender the holiday spirit.”

With COVID still a factor, you can use the outdoors as a place to safely gather, says Babandir.

“Listen to music, drive through the light displays in the community or walk around the neighborhood to see decorations.  Consider what has been meaningful in the past and start those activities now.  Look for opportunities to take in the sights, smells, tastes and sounds of the season.”