Why do Christmas Movies Make Us Feel Happy?

Anvi Bhagavatula, Photojournalist

One of the common activities people engage in during vacation is watching movies. This is particularly the case over the winter holidays, when movies such as It’s a Wonderful Life are almost synonymous with the label of Christmas itself. But, what exactly, are the reasons underlying this beloved tradition? In the spirit of the season itself, it turns out there are some positive benefits to this practice that go beyond simple diversion.


One benefit is that the positive images and messages seen in many holiday movies can improve our own mood by decreasing stress. In fact, the stress hormone cortisol, which can negatively affect our cardiovascular and immune systems, is reduced by the positive emotions generated by watching scenes of laughter and love often shown in holiday scenes. These happy scenes are often experienced as “real” by our brains, even though we logically know it’s not, so it’s understandable that perceiving something happy occurring in front of us would reduce stress.


Another benefit to watching Christmas movies is that watching others have romance, family, and friendship often increases the gratitude we have about the relationships in our own lives. A third benefit is that Christmas movies fit into familiar scripts we have about predictability of life. When people face conflict with their families, we hope it resolves. When people feel lonely, we hope they realize the connection they have with others. Christmas movies are often uncomplicated and easy to process, and what we expect to happen often does. There are no surprise endings or sad consequences to actions as there often are in movies that don’t have holiday themes.


A third benefit to watching holiday movies is that the themes apply across generations and they are something people of all ages can watch. There is no concern with inappropriate jokes, excessive violence, or heavy themes. In that way, it allows extended family and friends to watch something everyone can enjoy and gives a joint activity.


Finally, according to Positive Psychology researchers, by mapping areas of our brain that have greater activity when we are happy, found that engaging in a positive activity with others such as watching a movie can increase oxytocin, a “feel-good” hormone that increases levels of happiness. Even better, thinking later of the activity (for example, the laughter you and your friends shared watching Home Alone yet again) can again increase oxytocin levels. This means the benefits of watching the Christmas movie can increase even into the New Year! “I actually watch Christmas movies year round, just because they make me feel so happy,” says Madison Ems (11), “It could be the middle of June and I’ll go watch Home Alone.”