How your family can avoid the post-Christmas letdown
Posted December 26, 2016
You don't have to dwell in the Terrible Twos to think "Is that all there is?" after everything's unwrapped and the Christmas feast is a memory but for the tight clothes.
A post-holiday letdown seems inevitable after a month-long buildup to Christmas, and there are both biological and psychological reasons for what's often called a "holiday hangover."
Christmas and other holidays serve a cocktail of feel-good chemicals in our brains, chief among them dopamine and oxytocin, according to Loretta G. Breuning, a California researcher and author of "The Science of Positivity” and "Habits of a Happy Brain."
Dopamine floods us when we're anticipating a pleasurable experience. Oxytocin delivers the sense of acceptance, belonging and attachment that we feel when spending time with friends and family, meeting our biological need for being part of a social order that provides safety.
“Christmas may stimulate a large expectation of reward, and excess reward really turns on a lot of dopamine," Breuning said.
Then, when the chemicals dissipate, we descend to a more neutral gear, which feels, at best, disappointing and at worst, like a head-on crash.
“There’s nothing more depressing for a child than Dec. 26,” said Adam C. English, chair of the Department of Christian Studies at Campbell University in Buies Creek, North Carolina.
And it’s not just Dec. 26, but the week of chores that follows. “Taking down the tree and the lights, taking out the garbage and everything else that has to happen, it’s a thoroughly depressing time, even with all your new presents,” English said.
But if science can explain the letdown, science can also offer ways to avoid it.
Be ‘a force for good’
Caroline Webb is a New York-based management consultant and executive coach whose book “How to Have a Good Day” examines how people can use findings in behavioral science to improve their moods, productivity and impact. Some of those techniques can also teach us how to have a good day the day after Christmas.
Our brains are constantly scanning for threats and rewards, which Webb calls “discovery” and “defensive” modes. With the holidays ramping up opportunities for emotional reward, “if the celebration is mostly happy, there is a slump that can happen afterwards, but one thing that is helpful — after Christmas, or after anything else — is to focus again on what were the rewards in the situation,” she said.
In short, we can use memories to relight happiness.
Webb and her husband do this daily, taking time at the end of each day to review the good things that happened to them that day, even if they were “ridiculously small good things.” Because of the brain’s limits on processing information, humans tend to remember the most intense moments of an experience, but we also remember the end of an experience and reviewing it can change our perspective. “The more you can do that in the days after a peak, the more it starts to make you feel like not all the good stuff is over.”
A modest amount of exercise can help us get over a slump as well, Webb said.
“I’m a big advocate of looking for the tiniest amount of effort that will give you the biggest benefit,” she said. “Going for a 15-minute walk will get you most of the cognitive and emotional benefits” of exercise.
Adults should also be cognizant of how much their attitudes in the days after a holiday affect others.
“We each have a lot more power than we tend to realize to affect the mood in the room,” Webb said.
Because emotions are contagious and can spread within five minutes, “you can be a force for good” in your family by deliberately projecting a positive attitude as the Christmas season winds down.
“Knowing that our emotions, our feelings, are strangely contagious gives us back a sense of power and control in all sorts of difficult situations,” Webb said. By simply smiling, complimenting people and expressing appreciation continually, you can change the emotional temperature in your household. “I love how watching this shifts the dynamic,” Webb said.
The trap of expectation
A sense of depression and loss can accompany the end of any happy event. Most dangerous is postpartum depression, but people also complain of post-wedding, post-Disney and post-vacation blues, and runners even talk about post-race letdown.
As with any long-anticipated event, Christmas sets a "pretty high bar for happiness" that may be unrealistic, said Fred Bryant, a psychology professor at Loyola University.
“It’s great to have high hopes, but the secret is to let go of expectations when it arrives, otherwise, you spend your time comparing what it is to what you expected it to be. You can’t use those high hopes as standards of judging the quality of the moment," Bryant said.
One answer to post-holiday letdown, he said, is to “learn to structure your life in a way that allows more Christmas-type experiences all year. Let’s have a feast in the middle of the darkness in January, not just do it once a year.”
English, too, knows a little about anticipation, having written a book called “Christmas: Theological Anticipations.” As a father, he also knows that anticipation can be a ledge from which a plunge seems inevitable.
“Anticipation is so much more exciting than the thing itself, whatever it is,” he said.
English said one way people can help themselves avoid after-Christmas letdown is to thoughtfully consider what is fueling their expectations before the holiday arrives. The trap of unrealistic expectations is one in which parents, in particular, can get stuck if they’re having problems connecting with their kids.
“They take out another mortgage to buy their kids something amazing for Christmas thinking that is going to solve the relationship issue. And you know, it just doesn’t. You can buy their happiness for five minutes, but whatever relationship issues there were, they’re going to be there the day after as well.
“If you’re really struggling with Christmas letdown, maybe this is a sign that there is something else going on, that you have some expectation about Christmas that may have been unfair to put on Christmas to begin with," English said.
Envisioning the next steps
People who had great Christmases in childhood generally have high expectations for Christmas once they're adults, Breuning said.
“Our circuits are built by past experience. Whatever turned on when your neurocircuits were building will easily turn them on in your future. That’s why our Christmas expectations are so related to our past," she said.
Understanding that the rollercoaster of emotions comes from the physical workings of the brain — not some failing in themselves — can help people ease into "neutral,” which is a more accurate assessment than "down," she said.
Webb said she experienced a post-peak letdown recently, the day after she sang with her choral group at Carnegie Hall in New York City after months of preparation.
“It was so palpable — the feeling of uhhhhhh, now what, the emptiness," she said. “I should follow my own advice, and think about the pleasure of the event."
She can also focus on something in the future, which, Breuning notes, is another gift parents can give.
The most valuable skill parents can teach their children, Breuning believes, is how to create a good feeling by taking a step toward meeting their needs. “Our steps don’t always succeed, but we can always focus on choosing our next step,” she said.
Then there's also the practical and ancient practice of observing the 12 days of Christmas, with or without the partridge in the pear tree.
By making Christmas a celebration that lasts from Dec. 25 to Epiphany Jan. 6, families can prolong the celebration and maybe create a new family tradition for every one of those days, said English, who observes it with his family.
In addition to making the joys of Christmas last longer, there’s another benefit, albeit one that’s a bit more cynical: “By Jan. 6, everybody will be tired of it and ready to have this thing ended," English said.