By Wes Beavis
The incarnation of Jesus Christ, God’s rescue plan for humanity, contributes to the mental health of the believer more than anything else. At Christmas we celebrate the advent of salvation through Christ our Lord. But people who celebrate Christ’s birth also typically experience three additional factors that have positive impacts on mental health.
In 1912, French sociologist Émile Durkheim coined the term “collective effervescence,” which describes the euphoric self-transcendence that individuals feel when they are unified in focusing on a single subject or effort. Take a competitive rowing team, for example. Eight individuals climb into a racing boat and start rowing in complementary unison. With every synchronized stroke, the boat is propelled across the surface of the water.
Rowers testify to the elation of being completely unified in rhythm and stroke. This experience of purposeful attunement releases endorphins within the brain that cause a feeling of elatedness. The brain also releases oxytocin, which creates and strengthens relational bonds between participants.
I witnessed the power of collective effervescence in my son, Zack, when he joined his high school cross-country team. It was a sport unfamiliar to him, but he chose it because basketball, his other option, looked to involve a lot of bench warming!
During the cross-country season, Zack experienced heartbreaks and breakthroughs. It was a tumultuous journey that ultimately led to a second-place finish in the state finals. Almost 10 years later, that squad’s record still is the best-ever at his high school. But that was not the best outcome. A few months ago, Zack got married. Half of his groomsmen were cross-country buddies. Zack experienced collective effervescence when he was a part of that team. A handful of guys came together with one purpose—a singular focus and a combined effort. Although the team went their separate ways after high school, they remained close. Their relationships, forged through the experience of collective effervescence, have become lifelong strong.
Weekly worship services—and especially special services such as during Christmas—provide the opportunity to come together, sit together, stand together, sing together, listen together, and pray together. All of these group activities prompt the release of endorphins (that make us feel good) and oxytocin (which strengthens our relational bonds). And this is all good for mental health—not to mention the spiritual boost it provides.
The Positive Impact of Music
A second way Christmas is beneficial to mental health is through the music associated with the Christmas season. Scientific researchers have identified the positive impact music has on our mental states. In The Joy of Movement, Stanford University researcher Kelly McGonigal writes, “The brain responds to music it enjoys with a powerful adrenaline, dopamine, and endorphin rush, all of which energize effort and alleviate pain.” When we gather and sing Christmas carols and worship songs, it has an uplifting effect on mood and even an analgesic effect on physical pain we may be experiencing.
In 2007, the U.S. governing body for running competitions barred the use of personal music players in official races after it was determined runners who listened to music experienced a performance advantage. As a marathon runner, a big part of my preparation is compiling a set list of upbeat and inspiring songs I can listen to as I pound my way through 26.2 miles of relentless running. I have never run a “music-less” marathon, nor do I want to. A marathon is too long and painful to be left to my own thoughts. I need music and lyrics to hijack my mind from thinking, Why am I doing this? and I’m too old for this! and What was I thinking when I signed up for this? Music transports my mind to a brighter and more hopeful place.
When we gather in church to sing, our minds are infiltrated by the truth and sentiments of faith and salvation. When we sing, the cares and concerns of life and commercialism recede. For some people, singing alleviates pain. Singing Christmas songs is good for mental health and physical pain relief.
The Gift-Giving Blessing
Finally, consider the giving of gifts at Christmas. I know that Christians can be conflicted by the commercialization of Christmas. To be sure, the pressure, expectation, or feeling of obligation to buy presents can overshadow the true meaning of Christmas. In short, commercialization can be a real turn-off. But on the positive side, the spirit of communal generosity released at Christmas is unlike any other time of year. Scripture says, “It is more blessed to give than receive” (Acts 20:35). So, when we give to others, we create a conduit through which blessings flow. Being a blessing to others is good for the mental health of the giver and receiver.
Ultimately, the best thing we can do for our mental health is to accept the redemptive gift of salvation through Jesus Christ. He was born of a virgin and crucified for our sins, but he rose from the grave, conquering death for all who believe.
So, yes, celebrating Christ’s birth affords us certain flow-on health benefits.
The collective effervescence we experience when we join with others to worship the incarnate Messiah creates strong relational bonds. Christmas songs and singing have a positive impact on our mental and physical well-being. And we feel blessed when we are generous to others.
Sure, some aspects of the season will not be so good on our mental health—the increased traffic, crowded stores, and commercialization. But it is best to focus on the ways Christmas is good for our souls and mental health.