Why watching Christmas movies actually makes us happy, according to science

This year I started watching Christmas movies on Halloween. Lifetime hosted a marathon of Merry Liddle Christmas Series starring Kelly Rowland (aka My Favorite Holiday Movies After A Diva’s Christmas Carol with Vanessa L. Williams) and I had to tune in. I used to be a traditionalist — in the “Christmas music/movies only after Thanksgiving” sort of way (not in the Candace Cameron Bure sort of way), but it’s safe to say the pandemic broke me.

In a year of doom and gloom, a triple pandemic and more stress than I can handle, I’m trying to find my joy where I can, which this year meant getting a head start on those ridiculously cheesy-yet-good-holiday-movies and (gasp!) putting up our Christmas decorations before we carve the turkey.

And I’m not the only one. In fact, I was the last person at my book club to start watching vacation movies. My friend Sierra has been watching her since this summer. “I watch them year-round when I need a serotonin boost, but I’d say October/November I watch them back-to-back,” she says.

Our friend Heather went one step further. She watched Hallmark’s Christmas Marathon in July while working on a snowflake quilt “to set the mood”. But after Daylight Saving Time ends, she’s in for a win. “It’s dark, it’s cold,” she says. “Give me some predictable storylines and amazingly attractive people.” She might be on to something.

“Holiday movies make us happy for the same reason that every favorite movie makes us happy—the ritual, the routine, and the familiarity with it,” said Courtney Cope, Licensed Marriage and Family Therapist and Senior Clinical Operations Manager at BetterHelp. “For humans, these elements have something calming about our nervous system. Also, we usually watch the same Christmas movies every year and it brings a sense of order and calm to an often unpredictable world.”

It also has something to do with knowing that everything will work out in the end.

“When it comes to those cheesy vacation movies that we love to watch, we know they will always work in the most positive way and have happy endings,” explains Cope. “It’s a nice vacation from reality for our brain where we can put aside our beliefs and imagine a world where the good guy always wins, families always work out their differences, the main character always finds true love, and there’s always enough.” Money for the most magical and extravagant makes for a dreamy Christmas present or outing for the whole family!”

Our brain’s “fear center”, also known as the amygdala, aims to protect us and enjoys exposing reality for a few hours where we know everything will be fine, especially during a particularly stressful time of year . to Cope.

“Honestly, Christmas movies are written and designed specifically to make people feel good. The writers and producers gamble on appealing to the secret desires in your heart to find love, right a past mistake with someone, quit that horrible job in the city and start a simpler and happier life in the country with ‘good ones’ to find people’.” She says. “They intentionally incorporated songs that you probably heard growing up as a kid, and features traditions that remind you of home, so that it attracts the part of your brain that reminds you there was an easier and happier place.” time was. This is known as the “nostalgia effect,” a cognitive bias that causes us to remember the past as a more positive time than it likely was.”

For many people, there is a classic conditioning (aka Pavlovian response) that occurs when watching vacation movies as adults that reminds them of the same feelings they had when they watched them as children.

“Because of all these positive things that happen when we watch Christmas movies, our brain releases dopamine, which is associated with joy and reward in our brain while we’re watching these movies,” explains Cope. “These films give us what we want: simple solutions to some of life’s toughest problems in an accelerated time frame – something that can be completely unrealistic in real life.” But we don’t care how cheesy they are, the dopamine does the hard work to make us feel like we’re having a great time. We feel pleasure and our brain’s reward center is lit up, and that’s good enough to keep us entertained and engaged as viewers.”

The nostalgia depicted in vacation movies also activates the part of our brain known as the limbic system, which is closely linked to memories and early bonding experiences.

“Our brain feels a sense of relaxation and connection to our happiest memories when we watch these films – even if we can’t make it home for Christmas this year, or even if Grandma isn’t here to bake Christmas cookies with you,” says Cope.

Holiday movies can also make us more hopeful and inspire us to take positive action in our own lives, whether it’s a phone call to a loved one you’ve fallen out with or a family reunion.

“These hopeful feelings can calm the amygdala, the part of our brain that often looks for things to worry about, and also illuminate the anterior cingulate cortex, which is the part of our brain involved with emotional awareness, pain management, and Anticipating the future comes with results,” Cope shares.

If holiday movies aren’t your thing but you want to experience the same nostalgia effect, Cope recommends considering other activities you enjoyed as a child.

“By drawing on things we did and loved as children, we can access parts of our brain that remind us of simpler times and enjoy escaping the responsibilities of adulthood,” she says. “People can experience a release of dopamine when they have sex, exercise, take a cold shower, listen to music, or listen to music they love. To calm your amygdala, you can call a trusted friend, read positive affirmations, take a walk in nature, or consider therapy to help you overcome longstanding fears or anxieties with a trained professional.”

This story was originally published on Fortune.com

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