December 21, 2022
Michael Merzenich, PhD

We are now immersed in the season of joy. As a neuroscientist, I encourage you to join the celebration, because joy is really good for your brain.

When you experience joy and other pleasures, the brain releases dopamine. Dopamine is what gives you that warm feeling of happiness. It also helps with mood, learning, and memory. That’s why you can remember joyous events from decades ago — your wedding day, the birth of a child, or when you met your spouse — even when you can’t remember what you had for lunch.

During the holiday season, you may find that you are in a constant state of good spirits. I tend to associate this time of year with happy thoughts of Christmases past, because that’s my tradition, but there are many other wonderful holidays and traditions at this time of year.

You may find that many of those around you are filled with seasonal good spirits every year as the calendar page turns to December. Much of that is in anticipation of the expected joy. This joy is from anticipation of good things to come. You anticipate joy, the dopamine is released, and then you feel joy.

You may also feel it as you select presents or participate in family traditions. Joy just keeps popping up.

Many families have traditions that have been practiced for years or even for generations. Traditions help make the holidays a wonderful benchmark in our year, in which we collectively remind ourselves that we are connected to our own little tribe.

Neurologically we’re designed to be connected to one another; we are designed to attach to one another; and our brains release the hormone oxytocin when we are with (or think of) those we love most — to grow our sense of “self” to include those who are our most beloved.

Now, we are going to be with those people — our people. We’ll be sharing our common history and a long list of often quirky things that our family associates with the holidays. We look forward so much to the positive vibes from practicing those special traditions. And… the dopamine continues to flow.

However, the holidays aren’t joyful for everyone.

Negative sentiments at this time of year can be associated memories of disappointing and difficult times. There can be anxiety over meeting the perceived expectations of others, including preparing impeccable meals, selecting the perfect gifts, or creating a flawless holiday atmosphere, as well as concerns about commercialism and even interacting with certain relatives. There can be lots of reasons to want nothing to do with the holidays.

In those circumstances, maybe the best thing to do is to start a new holiday tradition. Perhaps you pick a new place to go and/or a different group to celebrate with. Maybe you want to spend the day at the beach or on a mountain with friends and adopt this as your new holiday custom.

A key part of many holidays, and especially Christmas, is the stories that are passed down for generations. Flying reindeer, toy-making elves and, of course, Santa Claus. This folklore about things that may be less than true also informs how our brains work.

Our brains are easily fooled, especially when the stories come from trusted sources. I mean, Grandma not only says reindeer can fly; she seems to even know them by name.

We all carry around many Santa-like stories in our brains about our world, ourselves, and others. Those stories are — to be kind — not completely truthful but may be useful (or even necessary) in navigating periods of our lives, at least until we find the truth. This search for truth that may even drive you to become a scientist.

I still remember the moment when I discovered that Santa Claus was a fraud! Though, I must tell you, I still love Santa… and the holidays.

Merry Christmas!