What is it really about Christmas that makes you feel all mushy inside? Why is social bonding so strong then? Is it the warm lights? The amazing food? Or is it actually being together with your loved ones, admiring the warm lights together and sharing said amazing food? We think it’s the latter, because really, is it truly Christmas if you don’t share it with someone? Viktor Frankl famously said: “The essentially self-transcendent quality of human existence renders man a being reaching out beyond himself” (1966).
Rituals and β-endorphins
We know that Christmas is a Christian holiday, and like with all religious celebrations, ritual plays a major role in creating meaningful interactions and strengthening social bonds. Although some individuals might’ve lost the religious meaning behind Christmas, the rituals remain, and they play an important part in bonding with people. Gift-exchanging, eating specific foods, putting up decorations, music and caroling, lights and dinners together with your family – all of these, although not necessarily holding a religious meaning in your heart, are rituals you and your loved ones participate in each year.
As usual, there are many theories around the topics we discuss. In the case of rituals, specifically, β-endorphins play a role in creating a feeling of togetherness. β-endorphins are neuropeptides (meaning, looong chains of amino acids) found in neurons of the hypothalamus and the pituitary gland. These types of endorphins can be released, for instance, following synchronized movements or sounds (for example, while singing carols together). Noteworthy is that β-endorphin primarily reduces stress and maintains homeostasis, so no wonder it makes us feel like we belong.
Social interaction and oxytocin
Another thing that hugely contributes to the collective Christmas cheer is oxytocin. You might’ve heard of it – the “love hormone”, produced in the hypothalamus and secreted by the pituitary gland. Sound familiar? Oxytocin appears to increase empathy, generosity, trust, and even wound healing. Positive social interactions, especially with like-minded people, can give you a long-lasting boom of oxytocin, which in turn strengthens your relationships, and makes you more giving and jovial during the holidays. Makes sense that the most social bonding you do all year happens over the holidays, and that is enough to keep you going for another year.
Social affiliation and dopamine
Dopamine, which plays a strong role in reward and motivation, is also unsurprisingly involved in social bonding. More interestingly, dopamine was found to be involved when talking about social affiliation, meaning that, for instance, the level of dopamine can be tied to the level of synchrony between two people. And what better to keep us in sync than festive food, jolly people, merry lights, nice hot chocolate, and naughty spiced alcoholic drinks – A.K.A. Christmas?
Bonding and other hormones
It’s interesting to see what a huge role hormones and neurotransmitters play in socially connecting our brains together over the holidays. Many more are subtly involved in social bonding, including prolactin, progesterone, even estrogens. What’s even more interesting to note, perhaps, is that not only do these hormones and neurotransmitters individually affect how you bond with people, but they sometimes work together to bring you warm, fuzzy feelings for your loved ones. For instance, estrogens work their magic in the hypothalamus to up the production and spread of oxytocin, kind of like Santa’s little elves working extra hard during the holidays to make and send out presents to all the children.
So, it goes to show that your brain and your body, especially your endocrine system (the one that deals in hormones), work around the clock on Christmas to make you feel all bubbly inside and outside with your loved ones. And even though this year it’s particularly difficult (in many cases, practically impossible) to physically meet your loved ones, your brain will still be hard at work even during the Zoom Christmas 2020 has thrown at us.
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