Family Travel

Christmas vacation activities that will actually make you happier

Kiss a loved one under the mistletoe-- it's free and easy!

Kiss a loved one under the mistletoe-- it's free and easy!  (iStock)

Christmas vacation is supposed to be fun. But when you’re traveling with the kids or staying with the in laws it can turn out to be stressful. So here are 10 holiday vacation activities that can actually make you happier and less stressed.

1. Watch a funny holiday movie.

You know those funny Christmas flicks that come out this time every year? (National Lampoon’s Christmas Vacation, anyone?) Well grab a cup of grandma’s hot chocolate, fire up the Netflix, and watch one, because research shows that laughing can actually improve your mood. “Stress is a fight or flight response, which makes us very serious and irritable,” explains psychologist Julie Pike. Laughing helps disrupt that. It ups your oxygen intake, which in turn stimulates the heart, lungs, and muscles, and lowers your blood pressure, according to the Mayo Clinic. “Laughter can also stimulate circulation and aid muscle relaxation, both of which help reduce some of the physical symptoms of stress,” says the Mayo Clinic.

2. Hug a loved one.

Sometimes it feels like the holidays are just an excuse to shop, but when it comes down to it, they’re really all about spending time with friends and family. So grab one of your loved ones for a big, long hug. “A sustained hug with someone you care about causes your body to release oxytocin,” a feel-good hormone, explains Pike. That in turn lowers your blood pressure and reduce stress, while boosting happiness.

3. Sprawl out on the couch.

Yes, we’re giving you permission to be a bit of couch potato this holiday, so find a comfy spot on cousin Frank’s couch and plop down. Why? Because sitting in an “expansive” position, i.e., with your arms and legs spread out, is actually a form of stress release. Of course, you only need to do it for two minutes to get the benefit, but there’s no harm in staying a little bit longer. People who sit in this position release lower levels of stress hormones than those who are all tensed up, according to Popular Science.

4. Be thankful.

Thanksgiving isn’t the only holiday during which we feel grateful. Maybe you’re thankful to be on a beautiful beach vacation for Christmas or grateful to be visiting relatives you don’t get to see very often. Whatever it is, write it down, says Pike: “When we focus on what is positive in the present, it helps re-orient us.”

5. Do Christmas crafts.

Whether it’s knitting a scarf on the plane, wrapping presents, or decorating a batch of Christmas cookies, crafting and creativity can increase happiness and reduce stress and anxiety. Experts believe when you find “flow” in creativity, it has effects similar to meditation. It also helps you focus on the now, rather than worrying or stressing out about what’s going on around you, explains Pike: “It keeps you in the present moment.”

6. Go Christmas caroling or sing at Church.

All that Christmas music on the radio during your road trip to grandma’s? (We’re talking to you, Mariah Carey!) Embrace it! Singing literally changes your brain chemistry, releasing endorphins and oxytocin, which boost your mood. And singing in a group — like caroling or a Church choir — is the most transformative, according to Time. Plus, research published in the Psychology of Music journal shows that singing in a choir is associated with decreased levels of anxiety.  

7. Kiss under the mistletoe.

Find yourself some mistletoe and a cute partner, and pucker up, because kissing boosts oxytocin and decreases cortisol, a stress hormone, according to research. It’s a similar effect to the hugging and other intimate pastimes. “Try to have lots of physical contact,” says Pike. Even if that means sexy time at the in laws house.

8. Take family photos.

Does staying with family in close quarters for the holidays have you at the end of your rope? Take some pictures of what’s going on: “The act of snapping photos detaches you from the emotional stress of the situation, and you become an observer, which can calm you,” says psychologist Pauline Wallin. And if you decide to post the photos on social media, find something funny to say about the situation. After all, if you’re going to laugh about it later, you may as well laugh about it now.

9. Eat ham for Christmas dinner — or roast some chestnuts.

First of all, eating in general stimulates happy chemical oxytocin, says Pike. And specifically, favorite holiday dinner foods like ham and turkey are high in the amino acid tryptophan, which your body converts to serotonin, another one of those feel-good brain chemicals. But don’t forget to have some mashed potatoes and rolls — the body needs carbs to help utilize the tryptophan. (Fun fact: Reindeer meat is actually even higher in tryptophan, but we doubt you want to eat Rudolph.) Nuts are also a good source of tryptophan, so roast those chestnuts by the open fire!

10. Chat with mom.

Ok, we know what you’re thinking — these one may seem more stress-inducing, depending on the mother. But studies show that a conversation with your mom for just 15 minutes can help lower cortisol levels and gives a big boost to oxytocin.

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