It’s the most wonderful time of the year … right? For students at the University of Wisconsin-Madison and colleges across the country, this isn’t always the case. The beginning of the holiday season does not only usher in gift exchanges, holiday movie marathons and jamming out to Mariah Carrey’s, “All I Want For Christmas Is You” on repeat. “The most wonderful time of the year” also marks the beginning of the most dreaded time of the year: finals season.
During the month of December, most students’ schedules do not stray far from the daily grind of study, eat and (maybe … hopefully?) sleep. As final exams and papers seemingly creep closer and closer, it can be difficult to remove oneself from the pressure to constantly be buried in readings and study guides. For this three and half week period until winter break finally makes its appearance, the holiday season — with all its merriness and cheer — can feel firmly reserved for those lucky enough to not find themselves in the library 24/7.
Yet when it comes to finding ways to manage finals-induced stress, embracing the “most wonderful time of the year” — even amidst its admittedly terrible timing — might represent the key to keeping your feel-good dopamine hormones pumping.
And is there any bigger embrace of the holiday season than decking the halls as soon as the Thanksgiving turkey is cleared from the dining room table? While the “perfect time” to start hauling out the holiday decor is highly contested, a recent study might have confirmed that those who favor any early start have the upper hand. Researchers found that holiday decorations spike dopamine levels. Because early decorators surround themselves with holiday cheer for a longer period of time, they exhibit higher levels of happiness than those who wait longer to welcome in the holiday season.
Why might this be? One explanation points to the nostalgia that is commonly associated with the holiday season. As psychoanalyst Steve McKeown explained, “Christmas decorations evoke those strong feelings of childhood. Decorations are simply an anchor or pathway to those old childhood magical emotions of excitement.”
For many of us, the holiday season is reminiscent of the wonder in the make-believe that encompassed many holiday childhood traditions. From hanging stockings, sending a Christmas List to the North Pole or watching out the window for a red sleigh sighting on Christmas Eve, the presence of holiday decorations brings to life this magic once again. It is important to recognize that not everyone associates the holiday season with happy, carefree memories. But for those who do, the nostalgia attached to the holiday season transports them back to a time when their burning question was whether they made the naughty or nice list — not if they’d find a way to write two papers while somehow still passing their final chemistry exam.
Even for those who struggle with the feelings and memories attached to the holiday season, researchers also point to the effects of chromotherapy or color therapy to show how holiday decor can still heighten happiness. Bright colors and lights have been found to increase our overall mood and energy levels — a hint that spending an evening putting up a Christmas tree or decking your room out in holiday lights might just be the push you need to power through that final essay assignment.
So, as you prepare yourself to take on the most dreaded time of the year, remind yourself that the most wonderful time of the year doesn’t have to wait to start until after you’ve clicked submit on your final paper or turned in your last final exam. If you haven’t already, hang up some stockings and string some holiday lights. Decorate a Christmas tree. Set up a winter village. Finals have arrived, but so has the holiday season — and it’s more than time to do your dopamine levels a favor and bask in the magic and merriness that makes the “most wonderful time of the year” live up to its name.