November 18, 2018/Brain & Nervous System

Does That Early Holiday Music Make You Happy — or Bring Out the Bah Humbugs?

Understanding why we react the way we do

A person using cell phone on sofa.

The holiday season sometimes has a way of creeping up on us. We’ve all been there, driving into work on a mid-November morning, thinking about Thanksgiving plans, when you turn on the radio and boom — there it is — ‘Deck the Halls’ or ‘Frosty the Snowman.’


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According to clinical psychologist Scott Bea, PsyD, how we react to early Christmas tunes has a lot to do with what our brains associate with the holiday season.

Warm and fuzzy or the polar opposite?

“For people who’ve had great Christmases, full of celebration and good feelings when they were young, they’re going to be more welcoming of all the cues that go on with Christmas — and Christmas music is one of those really powerful cues,” he explains.

On the flip side, if someone has difficult memories associated with the holidays, hearing music that is associated with this time of year may bring back some not-so-pleasant feelings.

In fact, one poll showed that almost 25 percent of Americans say the most stress-inducing part about the holidays was listening to the music.

Many see those tunes as mounting holiday pressure

“If the tunes start too soon and people tend to have stress responses to the holidays, it activates those stress responses early to shop or to produce a perfect holiday,” Dr. Bea says. “If people are prone to that perfectionism, hearing Christmas music too soon can create those associations and ramp up the tension before anything is really happening.”

For others, simply getting the festivities ‘out of order’ just doesn’t feel right.

Dr. Bea says many people don’t like it when they see decorations for different holidays colliding in the store — and this can actually create a stress response in our brains.

But, he notes retailers often break out the holly as early as possible because research has shown that playing Christmas music, combined with holiday scents, leads shoppers to buy more and spend more time in the store.

What you can do to stay jolly

If you’re not the type that’s ready to sing ‘Jingle Bells’ before the Thanksgiving turkey is carved, you can always tune it out until you’re ready to get into the holiday spirit, Dr. Bea suggests.

“You can block it out a little bit,” he says. “You can either do it physically, if you have little ear buds, or something you can put in to cancel it out. Or you can change the station if they’re playing Christmas songs a little too early. You do have a little governance over how this might affect you.”

Dr. Bea says one aspect of Christmas music that most people will agree on is that certain songs that get overplayed can get on our nerves. When something is played too much, even if we used to like it, it can really irritate us after a while.


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