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Research Shows Putting Up Holiday Decorations Can Help Boost Your Mood

girl putting a star on a Christmas tree

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Key Takeaways

  • Putting up holiday decorations can help lift our spirits and help us cope with the pandemic, experts say.
  • Research shows that partaking in rituals can help us process grief and give us a sense of control.
  • Because the pandemic has caused so much anxiety and uncertainty in our lives, engaging in traditions—both old and new—can improve our well-being and bring back some cheer.

The holidays are going to look very different this year due to the COVID-19 pandemic, but decorating for the season can help boost your mood. Partaking in traditions or rituals like hanging lights, putting up a tree, or doing some holiday baking are all ways to improve mental health and reduce stress, experts say.

“Our usual ways of connection, in terms of meeting with people and being together, have been taken away,” Vineeth John, MD, MBA, a professor of psychiatry with McGovern Medical School at The University of Texas Health Science Center at Houston (UTHealth) and UT Physicians, tells Verywell. 

“We are limited to what we call personal agency—what we can do on our own—and that's why traditions or rituals become the primary element we can return to," he says. "They’re something nobody can take away… and hold a lot of meaning to us.”

How Traditions and Rituals Help

According to research, rituals can help alleviate grief. A study out of Harvard Business School looked at how people engaged in rituals after experiencing different types of loss, including the death of a loved one, a failed relationship, and losing a lottery.

While behaviors vary across people and cultures, researchers found that engaging in rituals “mitigates grief by restoring the feelings of control that are impaired by both life-changing (the death of loved ones) and more mundane (losing lotteries) losses.” In other words, when there’s chaos around us, rituals help us regain control. 

These findings can be applied to the pandemic, says John, who was not involved in the study. Because the pandemic could have resulted in losing a loved one, a job, or the ability to celebrate the holidays with family this year, turning to rituals can keep us grounded if we are grieving. 

Lisa Bélanger, PhD, CEO and founder of ConsciousWorks, agrees. She tells Verywell that leaning on traditions in an unprecedented time can bring a welcomed feeling of normality. “Movies, game nights, traditional meals...can all be great coping mechanisms,” she says. 

What’s more, traditions give a sense of purpose that go beyond our current circumstances, John says. We can recall powerful memories by engaging in traditions—memories that remind us of who we are. “We are beyond some of the circumstances that are now trying to limit us or define us,” he says. “Survival is in all of us, and [traditions] are ways we can claim what is truly our own.”

What This Means For You

Head down to your basement and pull out those holiday decorations if you want to boost your mood. Research shows that partaking in rituals can give us a sense of control, which is particularly important during the pandemic. Experts say anything from hanging lights, baking cookies or watching holiday movies can make this season more enjoyable.

Engage In Old Traditions, And Make New Ones 

Even if you’re not going home for the holidays this year, you should still get into the festive spirit. 

John says returning to behaviors you did as a kid, like hanging lights or watching a holiday movie marathon, can improve your mood. This year is also an opportunity to create new traditions.

“I think people should be encouraged to start something new, because that's another way to dispel a sense of helplessness,” John says. “This also helps in claiming a small space which is totally on your own terms.”

John says many people underestimate the power of creativity, and think if they’ve never made art or baked before, they’ll be no good at it. Even if you’re awful at crafts, making something with your hands can be good for your mind. The holiday season is the perfect time to go online and learn how to make something as simple as cookies, or scan craft websites for instructions on how to make ornaments. 

The very behavior of decorating is an act of creativity, John says. “It’s another way to put your creative self to play, and come up with new designs and patterns.”

All of us have different relationships with our families, and the holiday season can bring a mixed bag of emotion. Bélanger says if you’re not feeling festive this year, you might consider finding a way to give back to the community.

“We are all dealing with different circumstances, some traditions may be very helpful for some and not necessarily for all,” Bélanger says. “If your mood and motivation are low, I suggest switching your mindset to the reason for the season… [which] helps [you] switch from thinking about restrictions, or things we have lost, to how we can serve and help others.”

“It is a different year, and perhaps a welcome time for new traditions,” she says.

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  1. Norton M, Gino F. Rituals alleviate grieving for loved ones, lovers, and lotteriesJournal of Experimental Psychology: General. 2014;143(1):266-272. doi:10.1037/a0031772