Merry Christmas! Happy Hanukah! Happy Holidays, everyone!
Did that greeting just make you warm inside with thoughts of winter lights and family celebrations and Salvation Army bells ringing for the poor? Or did you flinch? If you felt like rolling your eyes just now, I blame the retailers who have been forcing the holidays on us since the clock struck midnight on Halloween. This time of year usually generates 25 percent of all retail profits, and it seems every year advertisers redouble their holiday efforts to sell us stuff we don't need.
Advertisers are of course targeting our children, too, and not just during the holidays. From 1980 to 2004 the amount spent on children's advertising in America increased 15,000 percent—from $100 million to $15 billion annually. That's insane; and it's working. Economist Juliet Schor calculates that the average kid gets 70 new toys a year. What kid actually needs 70 toys in a lifetime?
And yet we're convinced that what will make our kids feel happy and loved on Christmas is a crazy pile of presents. Research shows that all this materialism leads to depression and anxiety. Kids who focus on stuff and money are less happy and more sick, more narcissistic, and have more behavior disorders than others. Clearly the joy they feel anticipating their loot doesn't last.
Here's the thing: though fraught with materialism, this season has more potential than any other to foster happiness.
Religious and culturally meaningful holidays spawn loads of family traditions—baking cookies, picking out a tree, caroling, parties to catch up with people you love—and it is family traditions and togetherness that offer lasting happiness. Social scientists have studied this specifically, and they've found that the people who spend more time with family and have more religious experiences during the holidays are happier than those who focus on spending money and receiving gifts.
Just as important for fostering happiness, we can use the holidays to cultivate children's desire to help others simply by modeling our own desire to give and by involving them in the helping. Family altruism teaches kids empathy and shows how giving makes us happy. And the effects are thought to be long term—very long term. Altruistic high school students in one study were healthier and happier fifty years later.
It should come as no surprise that the "helper's high," as one researcher has called it, is considerably healthier than the (ahem) other adult highs in which we tend to indulge during the holidays.
There is a strong association between helping behavior and health. This we learned from Ebenezer Scrooge, who became more vibrant and fit with each new act of kindness. Dickens intuitively knew what science is now proving, namely that helping others can counteract the stress and sadness some experience during the holidays.
According to altruism researcher Stephen Post, this is because altruism creates deep and positive relationships. It distracts us from our own problems and the anxiety that comes from being preoccupied with ourselves. Helping others gives our own lives greater meaning and purpose. Altruistic behavior cultivates loads of positive emotions—think gratitude, awe, optimism, faith, compassion, and love—and those feelings displace negative emotions like guilt, envy and sadness.
My friend Kelly Corrigan, whom I talk with in our video blog series Half Full, has loads of fantastic Christmas traditions because her own childhood memories of holiday happiness are built on Corrigan family rituals. Each year Kelly, Edward and their daughters collect and wrap gifts for kids who wouldn't otherwise get any, and then they deliver the presents together. They stay long enough to watch the kids open their presents. All return home feeling connected and content – with a "helpers high."
I can't think of a better way to spend the holiday season and to close out the old year than by building family traditions and giving to others—especially if our goal is to raise happy children.
Christine Carter, Ph.D., is a mother of two and the executive director of the Greater Good Science Center at UC Berkeley. Find more tips for raising happy kids at greatergoodparents.org.
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Important message for the holidays!
I love the format; short, to the point, easy to digest and entertaining.
Sylvia | 9:27 am, December 15, 2007 | Link
I have my PhD in child development in the School of Education from Stanford so, professionally, I find the ways you articulate the links between research and real life very useful in my work with families, youth, and school staff in the Bay Area. In addition, I have 3 year old twins and am grateful for your approach to parenting that is both hopeful as well as authentic. Thank you!
Sarah | 2:19 pm, December 20, 2007 | Link
Holidays has so much meaning because it is seeing so much more of the family and getting to hear about everything they are doing. We can go on outings together and explore the world in the sense of the zoo, seeing aquatic fish etc. walking along the beach feeling the sand between our toes and hearing the waves rolling in. It means more time to see the flowers and smell them and appreciate birds that hover around each one their unique calls that raises the heart beat with the thrill of nature and the wonders of this universe. My children are the miracles in this great universe and I say thanks every day for my blessings.
Maureen Bassett | 5:46 am, December 24, 2007 | Link
I felt that there was a bit of inconsistency in this posting. Needy kids don’t need the burden of materialistic expectation any more than our kids do. Instead of giving toys as a way to express altruism, there must be other ways to give — cook a Christmas meal for a family, or take them to a movie, or even volunteer at a soup-kitchen. Giving toys instead of getting them doesn’t avoid the advertising and consumerist culture that’s been built up around Christmas.
Susie Bassett | 6:06 pm, December 26, 2007 | Link
I so much agree with Susie Bassett about giving toys to needy kids. However, we need to seperate the objectives here.
1> to avoid advertising and consumerist culture around christmas, i.e., introduce them to true meaning of celebration and the good traditions
2> to actually understand the importance of a toy for a kid. i.e., does a kid really need to have a toy? will it help the kid improve on something? for ex: I would not consider a loaded video/computer game XBOX.
Well, we can give toys to needy kids even when it is not Christmas time. http://greatergood.berkeley.edu/half_full/wp-includes/images/smilies/icon_smile.gif
Neelima K | 12:07 pm, January 20, 2008 | Link
I have given each of my grandchildren a share in a gift from Heifer International
that helps people in other countries give people a chance to help themselves. It is
a gift for a better future in helping them to gain their independence and take care
of their own families and to pass it on to others. I’m hoping my grandchildren will
learn that lasting happiness is in giving, not receiving.
Kay | 4:47 pm, January 24, 2008 | Link
My two sons were each asked how to spend money the family had set aside for holiday
donations when they were growing up. Eventually they were each allocated one
quarter of that budget item to do with as they saw fit. It was interesting to see
how their choices reflected their own growth of that year. They gave to international charities, to relief organizations, to environmental groups, to local families hit with misfortune. It was a personal triumph of parenting when they began to add their own resources to the budgeted amount they were gifting.
The opportunity to make donations grew their awareness of those less fortunate. But
perhaps the biggest influence on their giving hearts was the daily example of
choices we made about our time and resources. Literacy tutoring, classroom
volunteering, mentoring, TimeBank promotion, and even the batch of chocolate chip
cookies baked and shared with a neighbor showed them the joy of loving others in
As young adults they are men I am proud to know. One gives unstintingly of his time
and mechanical expertise to friends and strangers. The other works on a more global
level, effecting change that gives all people integrity and adequate resources;
while promoting sustainability and fairness locally.
Thank you for your work in helping parents raise civic-minded, caring children. I
look forward to reading more of your work.
Terrie | 5:00 pm, January 24, 2008 | Link
Wow! I wish I saw that video on happiness during the holidays a couple months ago. Christmas has gone from “missing the point” to an institutionalized form of paganism at my house. I am sure pagans are not that happy during the holidays and I have anecdotal support for that. Gifts are becoming like heroine to my kids. The joy of each successive one is diminished and, while you are not happy without them, there are never enough. May be a bit of an overstatement but the addiction model has some parallels.
Isn’t it weird that the celebration of Christmas is linked to materialism when it is about the opposite( I know it is supposed to be about giving, but with kids lets get real)? Santa-Satan…..? Discuss……. Then we have Easter which is about the death and resurrection of Christ while the Easter Bunny hands out aborted eggs and crappy candy. Perhaps a little too bleak an interpretation on my part.
Anyway, the science of happiness is something that never would have occurred to me. Very cool. I will keep checking this site.
Rob S. | 9:16 pm, February 4, 2008 | Link
We just posted an article, “Consumption Culture: 50 Easy Ways to Curtail Your Family’s Footprint”. I thought I’d bring it to your attention in case you think your readers would find it interesting.
Either way, thanks for your time!
Kelly Sonora | 1:17 pm, May 4, 2009 | Link
Dear Christine, thanks for this article, we love them, keep them coming!
Growing up in a country where traditions are rather embarasing than cool, I can’t recall many holiday moments that would repeat year after year. We had the tree, we had the dinner, we sang a Christmas song and opened presents. That’s it. Oh yes, and my mums neverending nervousity if thing will be OK, my dad’s stricktness and violence. Not a merry picture. Rather something to run away from.
In all that crap, me and my brother managed to find a quiet island every year. In my country we hang special sweets on the tree. We buy them in shops, but they don’t come with a hanger, you have to get our your thread and your crafty side and put on the loops of thread one buy one. So me and my brother would go in his room and would do that job together. That hour away from the parents (they probably enjoyed having the children away too)was very quiet, peacefull, sometimes we just did the job beside eachother, sometimes we couldn’t stop chating about stuff that was important to us. The older we got, the better these conversations became.
And this is a nice tradition we had.
Happy Christmas everyone!
Szilvi | 2:53 am, December 11, 2009 | Link
Thanks, Christine, for your always thoughtful posts. In our house, we celebrate St. Nicholas Day on Dec. 6. I was turned on to this a couple of years ago and got help from the website http://www.stnicholascenter.org. We talk with the kids about who St. Nicholas was (a wealthy Christian who anonymously gave gifts to needy families). The kids leave a shoe outside their bedroom door on Dec. 5 and a carrot or other treat for St. Nick’s horse. The next morning he has left them each a new ornament for our tree (one of our other traditions is decorating the tree together) and on that day, as a family, we anonymously give gifts to others. This year the kids picked out books and contributed them to a book drive for our local children’s hospital. I think anything we parents can do to create a big picture view of the meaning of the holidays helps get the kids out of the selfishness and materialism the culture emphasizes. Another idea is from a friend of mine. Every day on Dec. 26, they go through old toys and choose ones to give to Good Will to make room for new toys. We’re hoping to start this tradition this year!
Amy Starr Redwine | 6:17 am, December 12, 2009 | Link