The Science Behind a Happier Holiday

Holiday Volunteering

“It’s the Most Wonderful Time of the Year” is the cheerful song heard bellowing through speakers from car radios, retail stores and nearly everywhere you go during the holiday season.

But the “happiest season of all” can also create holiday stress that puts some people on edge and evokes feelings of dread, and even depression, especially in individuals with underlying mental health and medical issues.

Randall Wright, M.D., a neurologist at Mischer Neuroscience Center at Memorial Hermann The Woodlands Medical Center, explains the science behind happiness and offers some suggestions for how to boost your mood to help you get back into the holiday spirit.

Generosity and Happiness

Studies have shown that volunteering and giving to others can make you feel happy. A 2008 study suggested that people feel happier after an act of generosity because activity in the brain regions involved in helping others seems to override the activity in the regions linked with personal reward, according to a study in Nature Communications.

“We know that altruistic behavior can make us feel better, but now we are seeing it at a neurobiological level,” said Dr. Wright, noting there is a direct link between generosity and happiness.

Scientists are using functional imaging techniques (along with many other methods) to better understand the neurobiological nature of altruism. What they have discovered is that giving of one’s self for the good of others creates a sense of happiness and well-being in the person doing the giving.

“Experiences in our childhood, religious beliefs, social beliefs, and our current sense of well-being all determine our perspective on what makes us happy,” explains Dr. Wright. “For example, one person may experience happiness by feeding the homeless while another person may feel great joy by preparing a gourmet meal for their family. All of our brains are different, in the sense that specific triggers of happiness are different from person to person.”

Researchers found that volunteering and giving to others was one of the most powerful ways to boost psychological health. Volunteering was found to lower depression, and significantly increase satisfaction for the volunteer, according to a BMC Public Health study.

The Pleasure Circuit

To understand why volunteering and giving boost your happiness levels, scientists are exploring a specific neuro-network of cells commonly and affectionately called the “pleasure circuit,” which controls emotions.

As scientists learn more about the specific pathways involved in behaviors such as altruism, we will gain better understanding of how the neurostructures of the pleasure circuit work together and influence the human experience.

‘Tis the Season for Giving

Since altruism and volunteering might be the best gift to boost personal happiness during the holiday, here are a few simple ways to give back to others this time of year:

  • Bake a sweet treat. Pass out homemade baked goods to your local fire department or police station, an elderly neighbor, single parent, or someone you know who is in need.
  • Volunteer your time. Serve food at a homeless shelter or deliver cards or decorations to a nursing home to brighten their holidays.
  • Donate. Choose a local food bank, women’s shelter, local childcare center or any philanthropic organization of your choice, and donate money, household goods or non-perishable items.

Volunteer With Us.

To learn about giving and volunteering at Memorial Hermann Health System, visit here: memorialhermann.org/give-volunteer

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