By Tim Harford (The Undercover Economist) in the Financial Times, 22 December 2018

Is Christmas a time of magic, generosity and conviviality? Or of overconsumption, stress, and social anxiety? It is easy to make a case either way: listen to Paul McCartney’s “Wonderful Christmas Time”, followed immediately by Tom McRae’s slow sighing cover of the song and hear the same lyrics convey backslapping cheer and solitary despair.

Messrs McCartney and McRae illustrate the dilemma, but they do not resolve it. For that, we need data, so I consulted some academics on the slippery subject of “subjective wellbeing”, or as you or I would call it, “happiness”.

Two years ago, wellbeing researchers at the London School of Economics surveyed a panel of experts, asking them: “Do you think that populations on average have higher wellbeing during major festive periods like Christmas?” None of the respondents was particularly confident, but the verdict was that Christmas is a time for good cheer: 54 per cent thought that Christmas increased average wellbeing, with 18 per cent disagreeing and the rest sitting on the fence.

Fence-sitting is perhaps the wise choice here: the topic has been rather sparsely researched, and what studies do exist provide viewpoints as contradictory as Messrs McCartney and McRae. One recent piece of research by Michael Mutz found that “the Christmas period is related to a decrease in life satisfaction and emotional wellbeing”. An older study by Tim Kasser and Kennon Sheldon found instead that “subjects are on the whole reasonably satisfied with their holiday experience” and that while many people found Christmas a bit stressful, the majority did not. One thing we can say with confidence is that, contrary to the popular myth, suicide rates don’t spike at Christmas; they fall.

It may be more fruitful to ask about how different people experience Christmas — and whether we can suggest ways to enhance the joy and reduce the anxiety. One plausible hypothesis is that Christmas is an amplifier of existing inequalities. Those who are relaxed, have no money worries and a good relationship with friends and family should find plenty to enjoy in Christmas; those who are anxious, isolated or financially stretched may find Christmas makes everything worse.

An alternative view is that how we feel about the festival depends on how we approach it. Mr Mutz found that Christians felt happier at Christmas, while others felt less happy. Similarly Messrs Kasser and Sheldon found that people who spent more time with their families or engaging in religious practices tended to have a better time of things. Consumerism fared less well, according to Messrs Kasser and Sheldon; for all the money and effort buying and wrapping gifts, the activity “apparently contributes little to holiday joy”.

I am not sure atheists would feel better if they headed to church, nor that people who dislike their relatives should seek them out anyway. But these findings do suggest that the syrupy advice of a thousand moralising television specials — that the true spirit of Christmas is friends, family and the little baby Jesus — has something going for it.

What, then, is an undercover economist to advise for a truly merry Christmas?

First, keep the crass spending under control. It is pointless to lament the commercialisation of Christmas, which is not new. Santa Claus appears in advertisements from the 1840s, Macy’s was open until midnight on Christmas Eve in 1867, and Rudolf the Red Nosed Reindeer was invented in 1939 by an advertising copywriter at Montgomery Ward who needed a free gift for shoppers.

So don’t get mad with the marketing men: get even. Commercial spaces such as shopping centres and Christmas markets lay on the sights, sounds and smells of Christmas free of charge. If you like that sort of thing, savour the atmosphere, and don’t bother with the flashily-packaged trash nobody really wants.

You can cite economist Joel Waldfogel, author of Scroogenomics, if you like: he has convincingly demonstrated that many Christmas presents are poorly chosen. Or you can quote Harriet Beecher Stowe, if you prefer: “There are worlds of money wasted, at this time of year, in getting things that nobody wants, and nobody cares for after they are got.” In any case, if it is the thought that counts, then think.

Second, make your own social rituals, whether it is a regular reunion with old friends, carol singing, or church on Christmas morning. There is plenty of evidence that both religious and secular Christmas rituals can improve your enjoyment of the holiday. The difficulty comes in wading through the coagulated expectations of everyone else in your social circle. Take the time to think about what you really value, discuss it with your family, and make it happen.

Third: share the chores. Women have tended to spend considerably more time on the task of shopping for and wrapping Christmas gifts, while men seem to enjoy Christmas more than women do. This may not be a coincidence.

Fourth: be grateful, and write your thank-you letters. More on this next week. Finally, don’t listen to too much Tom McRae. Merry Christmas.