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City’s ‘happiness’ lab probes the holidays

<p>With less than a week to go until Christmas, it’s hard not to get swept away by holiday cheer.</p>

It’s supposed to be a happy time, but the holidays can also be one of the most depressing times of the year, say Ottawa researchers.

With less than a week to go until Christmas, it’s hard not to get swept away by holiday cheer.

Indeed, for most people, this is a great time of year, said Dr. Hymie Anisman, Canada Research Chair for Neuroscience and a professor involved with the Institute of Neurosciences at Carleton University.

“People get together with their friends and family. We have an expectation that we’re going to be happy, that there’s supposed to be a turkey dinner and somewhere to go at New Year’s.”

The holiday season is generally full of social behaviour and activities that promote happiness, agrees Dr. John Zelenski, director of Carleton University’s Happiness Lab, which studies what characteristics make some people happier than others. “There’s the absence of arguments and upbeat music, which tends to improve people’s moods,” he said.

But for others, the holiday season is stress-filled, with pressure to buy the perfect presents, maximize family time and cram 10 days’ worth of activities into a four-day vacation from work.

There’s a lot of effort, output and energy exerted in selecting just the right balsam fir for the living room, baking perfectly decorated yet edible Christmas cookies and wandering from store-to-store in crowded malls.

“There are all kinds of expectations that go on at Christmas,” said Anisman. “Sometimes, you don’t feel like doing it, but you shut up and do it anyway.”

That’s when things get rough.

Anisman, who studies the relationship between stress and depression, said the link is definitely there, and can be more pronounced at Christmastime.

“One of the things people do to relieve stress is seek out their social supports,” he said. “But what about those people who don’t have friends and family? When the stressor is loneliness, you don’t have anything to help you deal with the stresses.”

To add to the blow, loneliness can be worse in the winter, affecting not only moods, but immunity to certain illnesses such as colds and flus that run rampant.

The days are shorter and colder, which make some people more depressed, said Zelenski.

In the end, loneliness and the lack of social support is a bigger issue than seasonal affective disorder, said Anisman.

While stressors can’t be completely eliminated, people can diminish the effect of the events by pursuing activities and finding new social supports, he said.


Metro Ottawa's Tracey Tong is an award-winning reporter. A Burlington native, Tong's career has taken her all over Ontario. Her Cityscapes column appears every Wednesday.

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