Holiday movies boost our positive emotions and sense of social connection.
Holiday films can elevate spirits and provide an escape from stress.
Nostalgia from rewatching favorites kindles warmth and feelings of social support.
Family watch parties strengthen bonds, link generations, and create traditions.
Holiday movies are here, reminding us that it’s time for the Christmas holidays. Americans rank watching holiday movies as one of their favorite traditions, above tree decorating and cookie baking. I like to check out the lists of “most popular” Christmas movies each year as an ersatz “needs” barometer. Much less scientific than the Belonging Barometer (Argo & Sheikh, 2023), the movies are, nevertheless, an indicator of what flavor of feel-good is most in demand. With reports of a loneliness epidemic in the aftermath of the pandemic, it’s not surprising that we rewatch our favorite movies to rekindle our sense of connection and holiday spirit.
People often turn to their favorite programs when feeling lonely. Just thinking about a favorite increases positive emotions, decreases stress, and increases the sense of social connection (Derrick et al., 2009). The holiday movie genre promises predictability and likeability, which contribute to their ability to reduce holiday stress.
The Recipe for a Holiday Movie
What are the ingredients for a holiday movie that lightens loneliness and relieves stress? Nostalgia, a magical setting, holiday tropes, archetypes, clichés, appealing characters, and a conflict centered on the longing for love, family, and purpose, with themes of hope and redemption all combine to boost our moods. Positive emotions are restorative during stressful periods, enhancing coping resources such as finding benefits, reordering priorities, and ascribing positive meaning to ordinary experiences (Folkman, 2008).
Holiday movies tap into tradition and ritual, triggering nostalgia for “the good old days” when things seemed simpler, kinder, and slower. Nostalgia increases perceptions of social support and fosters mental health by amplifying positive memories and recalling when everything seemed possible (Newman et al., 2020). Holiday movies let us revisit that innocence, increasing our confidence while escaping our obligations, stressors, and realities and helping us reimagine our world as full of possibilities.
Escaping to Magical Settings and Holiday Tropes
Holiday movies can be an exercise in self-expansion. Identification with characters enhances the experience of the typical holiday movie locales, like snow-covered Vermont cabins or remote European castles next to quaint villages, activating dreams and heightening escapism. The emotional distance from our own reality can make the movies more comforting, the messages more meaningful, and our imaginations more engaged.
We revel in the simple plots because we recognize that holiday movies serve a different purpose than cinematic achievement. The genre is well-defined. We don’t watch for intellectual stimulation; our expectations for a feel-good experience increase our motivation to suspend disbelief and emotionally engage. We are reassured by a happy ending. The resolution provides a psychological sigh of relief accompanied by the activation of the brain’s reward center. The movies offer simple, if unrealistic, solutions to all our holiday stressors. In doing so, they also let you know you’re not alone in your struggles.
The True Meaning of Christmas: Connecting With Others
We all want to feel connected and “home” for the holidays. Holiday movies are social experiences. They trigger memories and shared times and emphasize our intrinsic desires and basic needs for belonging, acceptance, and love. Holiday movies provide connection in another way. They can be enjoyed by the whole family, introducing old or creating new family traditions. Sharing experiences enhances the strength of our emotional connections, linking generations (Wen et al., 2016).
Traditions are important, impacting our well-being by elevating the ordinary, directing our attention, increasing our mindfulness, enhancing our sense of control, amplifying our appreciation of the significant, and, most importantly, making us feel part of something larger than ourselves.
Heart and Brain Healthy Entertainment
Loneliness and stress are public health crises. Holiday movies are not a cure-all, but don’t overlook the impact of positive emotions on lowering stress and making us feel more connected. Whether laughing, crying, or going “awwww,” holiday movies allow us to experience positive emotions, putting more psychological resources at our disposal and making us more able to combat negative emotions that raise blood pressure and increase the release of stress hormones.
By contrast, positive emotions, such as joy, happiness, compassion, hope, and empathy, make a holiday movie a really good deal. They lower blood pressure and are linked with reduced risk for heart disease, healthier weight, better blood sugar levels, decreased risk of mental illness, and longer life (Fredrickson & Joiner, 2002).
How to Benefit From Holiday Movies
Focus on the positive emotions over silly plot points. Positive emotions, such as hope, happiness, the value of connection, appreciation, and gratitude, literally change your body chemistry and can make even the Grinchiest feel more optimistic and resilient.
Allow the stories to inspire your possibilities and increase your appreciation of your strengths.
Think about how the underlying message of hope and joy might shift your thinking, alter your behavior, or highlight new goals. The “true meaning” of the holidays might be stepping away from the pressure to have a “perfect” holiday and focusing on spending time with people you care about.
Give yourself permission to relish the emotions—laugh at the jokes and cry at the reunions. It can release pent-up stress from the holidays.
How to Deal With Scrooge-Ish Tendencies
Don’t be bullied by people who don’t like holiday movies.
Don’t compare yourself to the protagonist’s external trappings. The stories are not benchmarks of success but metaphors to inspire hope and courage. Be happy that a dog saved Christmas; don’t feel bad because you don’t have a super-talented dog.
If you don’t like holiday movies, don’t be the emotional “downer” to others’ enjoyment by making fun of the movie or belittling the people who like them.
Increased stress, loneliness, and depression are common during the holidays. Even a joyous season can cause stress, whether it’s financial concerns, isolation, or unrealistic expectations for what the holidays are “supposed to be like.” Think of a holiday movie as a form of self-care—a minute to step away and make time for yourself. Whether we laugh at unrealistic plots, relate to the protagonist’s initial struggles, or revel in a happy ending, we benefit from the surge of neurotransmitter-induced good feelings that tap into our deepest emotions, adding meaning, increasing empathy, creating a sense of connection and warmth, and restoring our holiday spirit.
Derrick, J. L., Gabriel, S., & Hugenberg, K. (2009). Social surrogacy: How favored television programs provide the experience of belonging. Journal of Experimental Social Psychology, 45(2), 352-362. https://doi.org/10.1016/j.jesp.2008.12.003
Pamela Rutledge, PhD, is a scholar-practitioner, integrating her expertise in media psychology with 20+ years as a media producer. A member of the faculty at Fielding Graduate University since 2008, Dr. Rutledge teaches in the areas of brand psychology, audience engagement and narrative meaning. Dr. Rutledge consults with entertainment companies, such as 20th Century Fox Films and Warner Bros., on data strategies and audience narratives. Dr. Rutledge has published both academic and popular work, including a text on positive psychology and psychological appeal for fans of the Twilight Saga and resilience in the Girl with the Dragon Tattoo. She has also written book chapters on meaning-making and fandom, transmedia narrative engagement, and positive media psychology. She authors “Positively Media” for Psychology Today and is also a frequent expert source on media use and popular culture for media outlets such as The NY Times, The BBC World and ABC News. She holds a PhD and an MBA.