Christmas movies actually make us happy, according to science

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This year I started watching holiday movies on Halloween. Lifetime was hosting a marathon of the Merry Liddle Christmas series featuring Kelly Rowland (aka my favorite holiday movies after A Diva’s Christmas Carol with Vanessa L. Williams) and I had to tune in. I used to be a traditionalist—in the “Christmas music/movies only after Thanksgiving” kind of way (not the Candace Cameron Bure way), but it’s safe to say the pandemic broke me.

In a year full of doom and gloom, a tripledemic and more stress than I can handle, I try to find my joy where I can, which this year meant getting a head start on those ridiculously cheesy, yet feel-good holiday movies and (gasp!) putting up our Christmas decorations before we carve the turkey.

And I’m not the only one. In fact, in my book club I was the last one to start watching holiday movies. My friend Sierra has been watching them since this summer. “I watch them year round when I need a serotonin boost, but I would say October/November is when I start watching them back to back to back,” she says.

Our friend Heather took it a step further. She binged-watched Hallmark’s Christmas in July marathon while working on a snowflake quilt “for the vibes.” But after Daylight Saving Time ends, she’s in it to win it. “It’s dark, it’s cold,” she says. “Give me some predictable plots and blandly attractive people.” She may be on to something.

“Holiday movies make us happy for the same reason that watching any favorite movie makes us happy—the ritual, routine and familiarity of it,” says Courtney Cope, licensed marriage and family therapist and senior manager of clinical operations at BetterHelp. “For humans, there is something soothing to our nervous system about those elements. Also, we typically watch the same Christmas movies every year and that gives a sense of order and calm to an often unpredictable world.”

There’s also something about knowing it all works out in the end.

“When it comes to those cheesy holiday movies we love to watch, we know they are always going to work out in the most positive way and have a happy ending,” explains Cope. “It’s a nice vacation from reality for our brains where we can suspend belief and imagine a world where the good guy always wins, families always resolve their differences, the main character always finds true love and there’s always enough money for the most magical and extravagant dream christmas gift or trip for the whole family!”

The “fear center of our brain,” also known as the amygdala, aims to keep us safe and gets to enjoy suspending reality for a couple of hours where we know everything is going to fine, especially during a particularly stressful time of the year, according to Cope.

“Truthfully, Christmas movies are specifically written and designed to make folks feel good. The writers and producers are banking on appealing to your heart’s secret desires to find love, to right a past wrong with someone, to quit that awful job in the city and find a simpler and happier life in the country with ‘good people,’” she says. “They intentionally put in songs that you likely heard as a child growing up and show traditions that remind you of home so that it pulls on that part of your brain that makes you remember when it was a simpler and happier time. This is known as the ‘nostalgia effect,’ which is a cognitive bias that makes us recall the past as a more positive time that it likely was.”

For many people, there is classical conditioning (also known as Pavlovian response) that happens when watching holiday movies as an adult that reminds them of the same feelings they had when they watched them as children.

“Because of all of these positive things going on when we watch Christmas movies, our brains release dopamine, which is associated with pleasure and reward in our brains, while watching these films,” Cope explains. “These movies are giving us what we want: easy solutions to some of life’s most challenging problems in an expedited timeline—something that can be completely unrealistic in real life. But we don’t care how cheesy they are, the dopamine is doing the hard work to make us feel like we are having a great time. We are feeling pleasure and the reward center of our brain is being lit up and that is good enough to keep us entertained and engaged as audience members.”

The nostalgia showcased in holiday movies also activates the part of our brain known as the limbic system, which is closely tied to memories and early attachment experiences.

“Our brains feel a sense of relaxation and connection back to our happiest memories watching these movies–even if we can’t make it home for Christmas ourselves this year, or even if grandma is no longer here to bake Christmas sugar cookies with you,” says Cope.

Holiday movies can also make us feel more hopeful and inspire us to take positive actions in our own lives, whether it’s calling a loved one you’ve had a falling out with or reuniting with family.

“These hopeful feelings can calm the amygdala, which is the part of our brain often looking for things to worry about, and also light up the anterior cingulate cortex, which is the part our brain connected to emotional awareness, pain management, and anticipating future outcomes,” shares Cope. 

If holiday movies aren’t your thing, but you want to experience some of the same nostalgia effect, Cope recommends reflecting on other activities that brought you joy as a kid.

“By revisiting things we used to do and love as kids, we can access parts of our brains that remind us of simpler times and enjoy escaping from the responsibilities of adulthood,” she says. “People can experience a release of dopamine when they have sex, exercise, take a cold shower, listen or music they love. To calm your amygdala, you can talk to a trusted friend on the phone, read positive affirmations, go for a walk in nature, or consider going to therapy to work through any long-standing fears or anxieties with a trained professional.”

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