Sometimes December feels like one long cheat day—more food, less exercise, and promises that we’ll make up for it all in January. But getting into the spirit of things might also have unexpected wellness benefits. Here are some ways the holidays can help your health.
Socializing Can Be a Lifesaver
The extra hours you spend talking, laughing, or caroling with friends and family may increase your chances of living a longer, more robust life. When researchers looked at nearly 150 studies on social relationships and mortality, they found that people with stronger social ties had 50 percent higher odds of survival than those with weaker connections. (That’s comparable to the longevity boost you might get from never smoking.) On the flip side, a separate analysis found that social isolation and feelings of loneliness increased mortality risk by an average of 29 and 26 percent, respectively. Another recent study showed that blood pressure and levels of inflammation, which can indicate stress or disease, increased with social isolation.
Charitable Giving Has a Boomerang Effect
Regardless of your reason for giving—even if you feel obligated to do so—donating to an individual or a group can make you feel great. Research shows that givers really are happier than people who spend on themselves, and one study suggests that contributing just $5 toward someone else’s needs is enough to lift your mood. Brain scans reveal that when people give, the brain’s reward processing center lights up, which may prompt the release of feel-good chemicals that produce what psychologists call a helper’s high. In addition, charitable behavior may also lead to lower blood pressure and lower levels of the stress hormone cortisol.
Forgiving Helps You Flourish
Does a roast turkey give you flashbacks to the dinner when Aunt Gladys criticized your cooking skills—and your parenting style? I’m sure I’m not the first person to tell you that letting bygones be bygones can lift your mood: Research indicates that those who harbor a grudge may feel angrier and sadder when they think about the past. But forgiveness may also be good for your physical health, as it’s associated with lower blood pressure and heart rate. It may even help you fight off illness: In a small 2011 study presented at the Society of Behavioral Medicine’s annual meeting, HIV patients who had forgiven someone had higher CD4 cell percentages, indicating better immune function. Forgiveness doesn’t always come easily, so it’s nice to know that practicing goodwill toward others has a personal payoff, too.
Mehmet Oz, MD, is the host of The Dr. Oz Show (weekdays; check local listings).