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Holiday Cheer Happens in Your Brain

Well, here we are! This Covid-infested mess of a year is drawing to an end, the dark days of winter are upon us and ‘tis the season. And even though we still have to exercise caution and wear masks, limit gatherings and maintain physical distance, the holidays call for celebration. There will be lights, music, decorations, candles, time with friends and relatives even if only via zoom or reminiscing, hokey holiday movies, perhaps presents, homey smells, hot drinks and delicious foods of all varieties. Many of us have had a difficult year tinged with tough challenges and loss but we are still here, and there is love and beauty enough in the world if we look for it.

Whatever emotions you feel at this time of year, from excitement and joy to sadness, stress or even dread, they all happen in your brain. A lot of the stuff associated with the holidays like certain smells or music triggers memories of previous times when you experienced those things, maybe way back in childhood. And when old memories are stirred, your brain actually behaves as if it is re-living those times. So, at some level, rather than reacting to actual events in the world, your brain is running an internal simulation built on your previous experiences, and constructing your current emotional reality. This is why every individual experience of an emotion is unpredictable and unique. And this is why your fondest festive family traditions may not elicit the same giddy reaction, or may even be seen as weird and unexciting when introduced to other people who are unfamiliar with their historical context.

One of the coolest properties of our brains is that they can change. You have the power to cultivate more holiday cheer and less holiday blues. The more instances of positive experiences and feelings you create surrounding the holidays, the easier it will be for your brain to draw on those in the future. So decorate and bake or whatever other holiday tasks you enjoy and share those with others, create new fun rituals just for yourself or with your family and friends, and give your brain a feel-good dopamine boost by showing empathy for someone or doing something to help others. Oh, and try not to let unrealistic expectations for the season ruin it. In the end, this is just another time of year. But if you can remember how amazing it is that we get to be here at all, maybe every day can be a festive holiday.

Cheers, Happy Holidays and see you in 2021.

Post by: Nadia Fike


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