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Lights, Trees, Tinsel: The Earlier, the Merrier?

holiday lights
From the WebMD Archives

Nov. 9, 2018 -- Matthew Kidd has battled depression, anxiety, borderline personality disorder, and PTSD most of his life.

Things got especially bad in 2013 when Kidd and his wife, Danielle, lost their Pennsylvania home to a fire. It pushed them to move to South Carolina, away from Kidd's family, which made it all worse. When the holidays came around, he felt especially low. "It was seasonal depression. Christmas was coming. Our family was not close by. I didn't have many friends around," says Kidd, 34.

But as they got back on their feet in a new state, they started to go big for the holidays. “Ten to 12 inflatables, angel, Santa Claus, window clings, banners, lots of garland, lots of sparkle,” the couple say as they talk over each other, listing all the items in their inventory. And it made a difference. “We were festive,” he says.

So, last year, he thought, why not capitalize on all that feel-good energy as early as possible? They decorated for Christmas the day after Halloween.

“I said, ‘We’re going to decorate now,’ because since I battle depression and anxiety, I thought, if we don’t do it now, this could all turn around real quick, and I might not want to do it all,” Kidd says. “So we did it, and it worked.” Bringing out the holiday cheer made him actually feel it.

Could it work for you? There’s not a lot of science to back up the theory that you can change your mood by changing your surroundings this way.

Whether twinkling lights, Christmas carols, and the scent of gingerbread and pine will help boost your otherwise low spirits all depends on what the holidays mean to you. If it’s truly the most wonderful time of the year for you, bringing those positive associations to mind earlier will most likely … er … make your spirit bright. But if you associate the holidays with a bad memory -- for example, if you lost a parent this time last year -- decorating early might not be the best thing.

“We all form associations with the stuff in our physical world. It sends us very powerful, nonverbal messages that only change in extreme situations, such as the death of a loved one,” says Sally Augustin, PhD, an applied environmental psychologist who runs Design with Science in Chicago. She recommends designs to her clients based on environmental psychology research that explains how physical surroundings affect people’s feelings, thoughts, and behavior.

The Glories of Christmases Long, Long Ago

For people who say the yuletide season is the hap-happiest season of all, it’s all about the nostalgia. Every time you bring out those ornaments that have hung on your tree year after year, that’s bound to stir up quite a bit of nostalgia.

Nostalgia -- an affection for the past -- is a powerful thing. “These associations we have with the menorah, or the Christmas tree, or the smell of cinnamon and cookies, we build them up over years and years, and you can’t deny them,” says Augustin. “They are very strong.”

Research shows that nostalgia is linked to all kinds of positive emotions. When you’re feeling nostalgic, you might be more likely to stay calm in a difficult situation. The sentimental feeling can make you feel more socially connected, which in turn, research suggests makes you feel inspired a

nd energized. Maybe inspiration and energy are the key ingredients in that proverbial “holiday spirit.”

Nostalgia also seems to make people feel better about themselves. Under its influence, research shows that people’s mood improved, they described feeling more in touch with their true, inner selves, and they were less concerned about what others expected.

It may be that you unbox all of those positive emotions when you bring out the decorations and deck the halls. That nostalgia delivers a jolt of holiday cheer that you feel all the way through the New Year.

And it’s not just limited to the blinking lights, tinsel, and garland. The scents, and to some degree the sounds, of the holiday season can bring good tidings of great joy, too. “We form associations with all of our different sensory experiences,” says Augustin. “The strongest seems to be smell, and the weakest is probably music.” For the nostalgia-prone, music that you have a personal connection with -- not just any old carol -- can rouse all those positive emotions.

Ghosts of Christmas Past

If the holidays naturally bring up negative feelings for you, prolonging the season with decorations and pine-scented candles probably won’t help. Augustin suggests you try a different tack. Maybe hang a wreath on the door outside, so you don’t have to explain to neighbors why you didn’t decorate this year. But don’t force yourself to decorate spaces that only you will see.

Consider starting new traditions. “Work on building up new positive associations for the holidays,” says Augustin. “You have to be true to yourself and do what makes you feel good and puts you in a positive mood.”

For the Kidd family, that means decking every hall. “We do lights around the entire inside of the house, the living room, the dining room,” says Danielle. “We’ve got the tree, and this year we’re adding a second tree -- a beach tree decorated with seashells. When we decorate, not a room gets missed.”


An earlier version of the article incorrectly stated that Matthew Kidd has bipolar disorder. He has borderline personality disorder.

WebMD Health News Reviewed by Hansa D. Bhargava, MD on November 08, 2018


Matthew and Danielle Kidd, Ladson, SC.

Sally Augustin, PhD, Design with Science, La Grange Park, IL.

Emotion: “The mnemonic mover: nostalgia regulates avoidance and approach motivation.”

Personality & Social Psychology Bulletin: “Nostalgia-Evoked Inspiration: Mediating Mechanisms and Motivational Implications.”

Journal of Personality and Social Psychology:Remembering the real me: Nostalgia offers a window to the intrinsic self.”

Memory: “Scent-evoked nostalgia.”

Emotion: “Music-evoked nostalgia: affect, memory and personality.”

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