Celebrating the Holidays Can Actually Make You Healthier
The positive vibes in the air this time of year have real, powerful effects on your mental and physical health. Celebrating sets off a cocktail of brain chemicals that's almost like a natural party drug, says Robert C. Froemke, Ph.D., an associate professor of neuroscience and physiology at NYU Langone Health in New York City.
The main ingredients: oxytocin, which is associated with bonding and happiness and is released when you're around other people; noradrenaline, which skyrockets when you socialize and makes you feel energized and happy; and endorphins, feel-good chemicals that are released when you laugh, dance, and have a drink or two. And these three substances do a lot more than boost your mood. Oxytocin may help repair injured muscles and heal wounds, research shows. Noradrenaline is critical for focus, and endorphins (yeah, the kind you get from workouts) can help reduce pain.
The party mindset can also improve your memory. "Celebratory times are often mentally engaging, requiring some pretty high-level brain activity," Froemke says. At a gathering, for instance, there's a lot of visual stimulation between the decorations and people. And you have to navigate complex relationships ("Mom, meet my new boyfriend") and participate in multiple conversations, all while employing facial recognition, listening to music, and trying new foods. "It's the brain equivalent of a full-body workout," Froemke says.
Holiday celebration is especially powerful, experts say. This time of year, pretty much everyone is in on the festivities, and that shared sense of purpose actually strengthens the gains. "Human beings are wired to mirror others' emotions," Froemke says. "When you're around people who are also reveling, it works to deepen your own experience." (That's also why workout buddies are so clutch.)
Best of all, the advantages you get during this happy time of year don't have to fade away when the holiday lights come down. These three research-backed techniques will keep the party going through spring and beyond.
Plan a Party of Four-Or 15
The social aspect of the holidays is a huge wellness plus: People who interact with others are happier and healthier than those who are less social, and they even live longer. (Related: How to Overcome Social Anxiety and Actually Enjoy Time With Friends)
To maximize the benefits of your next get-together, no matter what the time of year, consider making it a fête of four. Spending time in groups of two or three can actually be a little stressful since one person inevitably feels pressured to keep the others engaged and entertained (unless you're all superclose). "And you can't have a conversation with more than four people at a time," says Robin Dunbar, Ph.D., who studies group dynamics at Oxford University. Once your gathering hits five, someone will wind up feeling left out. At four, though, you get all the perks of socializing with none of the stress.
Going bigger? Bring the guest count up to 15. That way people can mingle and break off into smaller groups without feeling overwhelmed or overly isolated, Dunbar says.
Remix that Magic
Team sports, book clubs, and volunteer groups can all create the type of mentality we share during the holiday season. "Social groups provide us with the same kind of psychological benefits and let us bask in reflected glory when the group succeeds, like when your team wins a game," says Jolanda Jetten, Ph.D., a professor of social psychology at the University of Queensland in Australia, who studies group membership. "They also provide a lens through which we make sense of the world, providing purpose, meaning, and direction. This grounding makes us stronger overall as individuals."
Team sports can also boost brain health. "Activities like soccer require high-level cognitive function because you need to assess the other players and strategize," says Predrag Petrovic, M.D., Ph.D., an associate professor of neuroscience at Karolinska Institutet in Sweden. "These mental tasks may strengthen the synapses in the prefrontal cortex, which could help with problem-solving and emotion regulation." (Related: How to Avoid Fighting with Your S.O. During the Holidays)
Concentrate on the New
Forget New Year's resolutions once and for all. Setting realistic goals may sometimes help motivate you, but too often they become a sneaky form of perfectionism, implying that you're not good enough as you are, says Kristin Ne, Ph.D., an associate professor at the University of Texas at Austin and the coauthor of The Mindful Self-Compassion Workbook. In truth, accepting yourself the way you are is one of the biggest pillars of happiness, a survey of 5,000 people conducted by the Action for Happiness charity found.
So this year, ditch the should-dos and focus on having fun. New experiences activate the brain region that releases noradrenaline throughout the rest of the brain, building your strength and confidence. Now that's something to celebrate. (And if you really don't feel like it? Read this: In Defense of Not Being Social All of the Time)