An image of UL covered in snow
Monday, December 5, 2022

New University of Limerick research has shown that sending Christmas cards is associated with lower symptoms of depression.

The study found that depressed people were less likely to send Christmas cards than non-depressed people, with effects mainly evident in those identifying as Christian.

The research, led by Professor Stephen Gallagher, director of the Study of Anxiety Stress and Health Lab at UL, has just been published in the journal Cogent Psychology.

Professor Gallagher and colleagues in the study were curious to see if the sending of Christmas cards offering any insight into the sender.

“While many of the behavioural characteristics displayed by people with depression are well known, here, for the first time, we demonstrate that a Christmas behaviour, or the sending of Christmas cards, is also affected,” explained Professor Gallagher.

“We found that approximately 55% of non-depressed people reported ‘always’ sending Christmas cards, compared to 46% of those with depression. And, when we accounted for gender, ethnicity, and religious affiliation, we find the decreased likelihood of sending cards was evident only for Christians and no other religions,” he added.

The researchers note that people with depression can struggle emotionally with Christmas. The festive period is often associated with parties, social engagement, putting up Christmas trees among other socially related behaviours.

Even though Christmas is a much-celebrated season for many, it is also one that elicits mixed feelings. For example, some studies indicate that while Christmas is a happy time for most, for others, their mental health deteriorates; something that is often referred to as the ‘Holiday Blues’.

“For those who are already depressed, a Christmas season laden with these social behaviours is likely to be threatening, due to their anhedonia type behaviour, that is, not getting pleasure from their typical behaviours - in this case sending Christmas cards,” acknowledged Professor Gallagher.

“Moreover, given that Christmas is a Christian holiday, where sending cards and greetings are seen as traditional and normative behaviours, it is not surprising that these effects were evident in Christians only.”

Using data from over 2,400 people who took part in the UK’s ‘Understanding Society Wave 5’ dataset, the UL researchers extracted the information as to whether individuals sent Christmas cards.

Participants responded with categories ranging from Always = 1, Sometimes = 2, Never = 3 and don’t know what this is = 4). They also provided details on their gender, education, monthly income, ethnicity, Christian affiliation as well as reporting on their symptoms of depression on a validated psychometric scale.

“This suggests that sending Christmas cards may be another behavioural characteristic displayed by those with depression, especially for Christians. However, other religious groups may have festival-related behaviours affected that may reflect those cultural values,” explained Professor Gallagher.

“Moreover, prior research has found that prosocial gesture of expressing gratitude in letters and cards has been found to boost positive emotions in both the receiver and sender and here we found that it was more than just the exchange of pleasantries and good wishes over the festive season,” Professor Gallagher added.

The findings suggest that there is evidence that it is the senders’ mood which may influence their Christmas behaviours.  

Dr Jennifer McMahon, a lecturer in psychology at UL who was a co-author on the study added: “If you do not hear from someone who regularly sends you a Christmas card, it might be worth checking in with them to spread some Christmas cheer.”