Even though the days are short and the to-do lists are long, Christmas is consistently among the days when Americans are happiest, with New Year’s Day a close runner-up. So despite all the stress leading up to the holiday season, for most people it delivers what the late singer Andy Williams promised is the most wonderful time of the year.
There are exceptions, most notably individuals and families suffering through hardships like divorce or illness, and the holidays are happier for some personality types than others. But polling by Gallup suggests there’s a holiday happiness curve in the calendar year, and we’re experiencing the high points right now.
In 2014, 63 percent of Americans told Gallup that they experienced happiness “without stress or worry” on Christmas Day. Sixty-eight percent were happy on Thanksgiving, and 62 percent on New Year’s Day.
Conversely, they were most unhappy as summer came to an end. Among the least happy days in 2014 were Sept. 16 and 23 and Oct. 8 and 28.
The dates do not comprise the symmetrical U-curve of happiness that researchers like Carol Graham have found correspond with most people’s lives, but they’re close.
Graham, of the Brookings Institution, has concluded that happiness is high in childhood, then begins a descent that bottoms out in midlife, then ascends again, so long as people remain healthy and have good relationships. Graham found that the happiness curve holds true across the globe, except for one country, Russia, where happiness continues to decline, even in old age.
Gallup’s polling shows that Americans’ happiness over the course of a calendar year follows a similar path, with happiness spiking on New Year’s Day, Thanksgiving and Christmas Day. The seasonal peaks and lows of 2014 were consistent with polling of previous years.
Unfortunately, you can’t have a peak without descent, which means that there’s a slope around the corner, and it’s called January.
“There’s a dip that happens after the holidays; there’s always going to be a letdown,” said Larry Shushansky, a psychotherapist in Providence, R.I., who said he’s always busiest after the holidays.
That’s because there’s a natural and predictable deflation after a much anticipated day has passed. But also because people often confuse happiness with pleasure, particularly when answering a pollster’s questions about what days they are happiest, Shushansky said.
“What’s happening here is that Gallup is measuring pleasure, not happiness, which is a deep-seated state of mind; true happiness is something more stable and it is not associated with a season or a celebration of a holiday,” he said.
Of course, the happiness of any given holiday season can be tempered by family hardships such as death or divorce. It can also suffer from inflated expectations, which, according to New York City psychologist Katherine Schafler, “are laid like landmines during the holidays.”
“People have high hopes for everything they can accomplish and end up feeling more exhausted after the holidays than before,” she said.
Schafler also noted that the level of happiness — or unhappiness — people experience during their holidays may have as much to do with their personalities as their circumstances.
“Introverts restore alone, and extroverts restore with others,” she said. “For extroverts, the holidays are packed with opportunities to restore. For introverts, they are packed with opportunities to be drained.” How you feel, then, is “not a commentary on your family and whether you love them, but what you need to do to restore, and whether you had an opportunity to do that.”
The fact that people consistently say they are happiest on Christmas and New Year’s Day is a testament to the importance of family in their lives. A survey by the Pew Research Center shows that spending time with family at Christmas is consistent among all generations: 85 percent of baby boomers, 86 percent of generation X and 90 percent of millennials say they planned to be with family and friends on Christmas Day or Christmas Eve.
It is significant, also, that happiness peaks on these family oriented days, because they come at the time of year when the attainment of happiness is more physically challenging.
“December can be a tough time because of shorter days and less sun, especially those who are prone to seasonal mood changes,” said Dr. Gail Saltz, a New York City psychiatrist and author. Between the demands of travel, shopping and social engagements, people are also less likely to exercise over the holidays, so they lose out on the mood-enhancing chemicals that the body releases during and after physical exertion.
“Many people struggle in December with a disconnect between what they’re supposed to be feeling and what they actually feel,” she said.
But if, as Shushansky says, a deep-seated, sustained happiness is the goal, not the temporary caress of pleasure, the holiday happiness curve presents opportunities for future happiness, even after the inevitable dip. That’s because, Schafler says, happiness has three components: anticipating, experiencing and remembering.
“Even if you’re not having a great time during the experience itself, being cold or (noticing) how loud someone is chewing at the table may not make it into the long-term memory. If you can knock out all three, that’s great, but two is great, too. I like the idea of being ‘happy enough,’” she said.
Schafler notes, however, that even “happy enough” may not be achievable for some people, whose loneliness and despair may be exacerbated when everyone else is experiencing the high points of their year. She urges that people who are contemplating suicide call the national hotline, 800-273-8255. It’s free and staffed with compassionate professionals — even on the happiest days of the year.
Jennifer Graham covers health and wellness for the Deseret News. On Twitter, she's @grahamtoday.