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Does putting up holiday decorations early actually make you happier? Here’s what experts say.

Psychology of how holiday decorating influences happiness
Experts say that doing holiday decorating early can bring on a mood boost for some. Here's why. (Illustration by Victoria Ellis for Yahoo News) (Illustration by Victoria Ellis for Yahoo News)

When the holiday season comes around, each family has their own hot take on when the decorations should go up. Right after Thanksgiving or even post-Halloween? Sometime in December? The night before the holiday?

Some people can’t wait to get the holiday spirit going, saying it makes them feel happier. Others prefer to celebrate the other holidays first, or just aren’t as into the holiday spirit.

According to an old study that’s referenced about every year, people rate those who decorate early as more sociable, and as anecdotally discussed, happier. Do those findings still hold up today? Should those of us who celebrate holidays such as Christmas, for example, consider heading over to Christmas tree farms a bit earlier than usual?

The resounding answer: Yes, holiday decorating and happiness are closely linked. But how do the two intersect and play off of each other? Here’s what experts have to say.

How holiday decorating can boost your mood

Putting up a Christmas tree, placing a menorah or Kwanzaa kinara on your fireplace mantel and hanging ornaments and other types of decorations early can improve your mood. According to a 2022 survey of 1,000 Americans by Wakefield Research, nearly 80% of participants say that decorating early in the season puts them in the holiday spirit.

This could be attributed to a switch up in routine, feelings of nostalgia or just the well-loved look of decor, according to Jami Warner, executive director of the American Christmas Tree Association.

From a more scientific standpoint, holiday decorating can cause a dopamine spike, psychologist Deborah Serani told TODAY. (Dopamine is a neurotransmitter associated with positive feelings such as pleasure.)

Holiday decorating can also bring a sense of fun and (literally) add some more light to your home, just as the sun starts going down at 4:30 p.m. and as seasonal affective disorder cases rise. “In my experience, decorating for the holidays, especially early, can take the edge off the gloom many of us encounter with the diminishing sunlight of autumn,” John Cottone, a licensed psychologist with Choosing Therapy, tells Yahoo Life.

He adds: “Lights, especially those of bright colors, trigger associations in people’s minds of festivities, safety and joy.”

Interestingly, lights and decorating can also engage our creativity and help us feel more alive. “In our minds, creativity is associated with creation, which is associated with birth and life,” Cottone says. “These are concepts that often have a positive effect on people’s mental health.”

The feelings of happiness around the holidays also often tie back to being more social. “They feel more cheerful and energetic since Christmas, for many, represents parties, being with the people they love and having fun,” Aura De Los Santos, a clinical psychologist and specialist at E-Health Project, tells Yahoo Life.

Which comes first — decorating or happiness?

When it comes to the chicken or the egg question — in other words, which came first, the decorating or happiness? — Cottone says it’s the former. “I think the decorating comes first as a response to the seasonal gloom that comes along with the autumn’s diminishing sunlight,” he says.

De Los Santos leans more into happiness kicking off decorating, but not strictly so. “When the holidays are approaching, people feel happy and excited thinking about how they are going to decorate their home,” she says. “When they start decorating, they feel even happier, as they see how what they have thought of comes to life.”

Best practices for bringing on that holiday joy

So how early should people decorate for maximum joy? And do more decorations mean more happiness?

According to experts, there are no rules here. Cottone says he has patients who keep a Christmas tree in their house year-round, or put it up in October and decorate it with Halloween and Thanksgiving items first. It’s all about whatever brings you and your family or housemates joy.

That said, the mood boost can wane over time for some, which is why Cottone suggests avoiding relying solely on the Christmas tree, for example, for happiness over the holiday season. “The longer decorations are up, the more likely it is that we will habituate to them, and their effect on our mood will diminish over time,” he says.

He also points out that more decorations aren’t necessarily better. “The more decorations one puts up, the more they have to take down, and this can become a burden that can negatively impact one’s mood,” he says.

So is there a happy medium? Yes, says Cottone. “As a general rule, I’d say not to put out any more decorations than what can be taken down in a few hours on a Saturday morning,” he says. “And if a person truly feels that decorating has an effect on their mood, don’t limit your decorating to just the winter holidays.”

Holiday prep can be emotionally hard for some

Amidst this excitement, it’s important to note that the holidays aren’t always a happy time. Feeling sad or lonely, for example, is valid, common and understandable. “Those who have experienced a loss may feel sadder knowing that at the holidays they will not be with those they would like to be with or do what they have wanted to do,” De Los Santos says.

With that in mind, some people might not decorate “because they don’t want contact with a holiday” or “feel they won’t be able to enjoy it,” she says.

Cottone agrees that the holidays can be the toughest period for people who have lost loved ones or endured other major changes in their lives. “The holidays are a time when we reflect on the past: a time for us to recall memories when we were younger, with fewer life burdens, and more of our loved ones around us,” he says. “When we lose a loved one, the holidays are a stark reminder that time moves only in one direction, that we can never go back to those happier, simpler times in our lives.”

If this is the case for you, Cottone suggests celebrating and decorating in a new way to encourage new memories and new positive associations.

But regardless of how you’re feeling this holiday season, know you’re not alone. Experts recommend doing what you can to respect your emotions and finding small ways to enjoy — or simply get through — this holiday season, whether that means decorating early or not.