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TRENDING SCIENCE: The science of why holiday lights bring us joy

Decorative lighting during the holiday season triggers happy chemical in our brain.

Fundamental Research

When you look around, do you have the feeling that you’re seeing more brightly coloured lights than ever before? You’re not alone. All around the world, from towns to sprawling metropolises, great light displays went up earlier and more widespread than ever before. 2020 was far from ordinary, so why should we expect anything different from the holidays?

Break out the lights, be happy

COVID-19 has kept us home for long periods of time, so it’s no surprise that we’re yearning for something joyful amidst so much pain and suffering. We want our homes to look cheerful. After all, we’ll be stuck there during Christmas. In 1882, Edward Johnson, an American inventor and business associate of Thomas Edison, first introduced holiday lights to the world. The science behind why these lights make us happy is fascinating. “It does create that neurological shift that can produce happiness,” psychologist and award-winning author Deborah Serani, a senior professor at New York’s Adelphi University, told the American TV programme ‘The Today Show’. “I think anything that takes us out of our normal habituation, the normal day in, day out ... signals our senses, and then our senses measure if it’s pleasing or not." She added: “Christmas decorating will spike dopamine, a feel-good hormone.” Prof. Serani explained that the bright lights and colours trigger happy hormones. One possible explanation is chromotherapy (colour therapy) that is believed to boost energy levels and happiness. Then of course there’s nostalgia. “For a lot of us, Christmas is a magical time, it’s a time of innocence, it’s a time of joy.”

More than just happy hormones

Cocooning is another possible reason why lights flew off the shelves this winter. The word originated in the 1980s when people retreated inside their four walls to shelter themselves from the harsh realities of the Cold War. Now with lockdowns and fear of the coronavirus disease, the cocooning trend is back. The home is at the centre of our lives. We’ll be spending a lot of time in them, so let’s decorate to feel good about ourselves and our space! There’s also another benefit to putting up the lights that you’re not aware of. According to a study published in the ‘Journal of Environmental Psychology’, holiday decorations make you look friendlier and more approachable to your neighbours. Yes, research has been done on this, too. Not feeling the light vibes this year? Didn’t put any up? No worries, your neighbours won’t mind. David H. Rosmarin, an assistant professor at Harvard Medical School, explained that there’s a silver lining to this festive season: “General holiday stress stands to be lower than in typical years since social expectations are diminished, and there is greater acceptance of human limitations and struggles.” He elaborated further: “No one will take it personally if our gifts or meals aren’t ‘perfect’ this year, as long as we acknowledge our struggles. That creates less pressure when it comes to our performance and our appearances.”


lights, holiday lights, Christmas, holiday, cocooning, dopamine, coronavirus, COVID-19