Bah Humbug! The Weekly Scientist on Christmas, Part Two

Beware of those nifty Christmas Cards

Shy of actually coming equipped with an hypnotic beam that activates the moment you open the envelope, the Christmas cards of today are apparently so much more than just polite messages of good will. A host of psychologists who spent their holiday season doing the impossible — sorting through that insurmountable Everest of Yuletide correspondence — managed to expose the conspiracy that underlies our favourite Western tradition. Unless you are the sort of person who forgets to give your grandmother that cursory call on Christmas Eve (tut-tut), you too might be involved. Now, before I continue, I would encourage you to lock your doors. Draw the curtains and make sure that nobody is around, for what you are about to find out will truly change your life forever…

I am jesting, of course, but there is indeed something more sinister about a Christmas card than its price. For a reason that genuinely escapes me, billions of obedient, little, consumerist sheep squander ca. 1.306 billion pounds on squares of cardboard so overpriced they might as well be emblazoned in pure gold. But Jennifer Kunz of West Texas A&M University claims that it is really the thought that counts; only, our thoughts are not as innocent and magnanimous as we’d like to think they are.

Inspired by a very similar study conducted in 1971 by sociologist Sheila Johnson, Kuntz got together a contingent of unsuspecting well-wishers and after giving their pay cheques impolite glances (I presume), divided them into two socioeconomic groups: high and low. Both of these groups were instructed to send out Christmas cards and record the number of responses they received. Interestingly, contributors of a “high” status, such as doctors and lawyers and entrepreneurs, reported a response rate of 78%, compared to the paltry 22% of their less wealthy counterparts. This meant that people of a perceived “high” social position were less likely to get “blanked” when they sent someone season’s greetings. Note also the fact that the majority of these responses came from low status individuals, who in some instances, didn’t even know the initial sender.

In the 1970s, Sheila Johnson offered a simple explanation for this curious sociological phenomenon. Johnson concluded that our Christmas card sending habits are biased toward individuals believed to be higher up in the pecking order. In fact, instead of our fellow colleagues, we would much prefer to wish our employers happy holidays, even if they had never deemed us worthy of such a gesture themselves. She proposed that every one of these seemingly well-intentioned greetings cards came attached with an ulterior motive. In the classic example of the ambitious desk jockey and the draconian supervisor, it all boils down to shameless point scoring. Grovelling has to start somewhere, so why not with an expensive Clinton’s card?

Some social scientists would even describe the intentions of this not-so-selfless act as “upwardly mobile”, in other words, a form of cosmopolitan, blue-collar social climbing. After all, that tiny bit of brownnosing might not seem like much at first, but come the next promotion, your boss might just remember that Tweety with Santa Hat card that you send them. And sycophancy is not the only thing that characteristic Thinking of You This Christmas slogan is good for.

If you’ve spend your November racking your brains as to whom to keep on your Christmas card list, you’ll probably attest to the fact these star-spangled pieces of paper are also tools for restructuring our complex social networks. Not sending a card to that bestie whom you recently caught locking tonsils with your ex is one subtle way of telling them that you’d like to see them stumble into a pool of flesh-hungry piranhas. And giving one to someone you hadn’t before could mean that you are secretly vying to become a new member of their social circle.

I might be belabouring the obvious, but Christmas cards do genuinely say a lot more than just “Happy Christmas”. What was that old adage again? A picture speaks a thousand words? In that case, make sure that the nativity scene is telling your boss that you are more than suitable for that coveted promotion. Or if the recipient is that friend whom you’ve always had a secret crush on, that you are bit of a sexual adventurer.

Feeling SAD this Christmas?

Plenty of harried marathon shoppers will probably admit to finding the Crimbo season a bit of a besetment, what with all the crowded high streets and the treacherous roads; to sufferers of mental illnesses, however, this time of the year can be more than just a little annoying. Bleak skies don’t exactly leave anyone one of us feeling hale and hearty, but according to Mind, Christmas is particularly difficult for people who are suffering from depression, loneliness or bereavement. Now is about the time when many people within and also outside these categories would rather befriend their duvet and a bag of Nacho Cheese Doritos than the rest of the world.

Seasonal Affective Disorder (SAD) is just as much an aspect of the festive period as that dreadful Band Aid 20 song or the lack of sensation in our toes. Sufferers of this condition retreat into their own self-imposed exile as the daylight hours shorten and the mercury dips. They can sleep for up to a record 16 hours and eat almost twice as much as they normally do. If your girlfriend or boyfriend just happens to have SAD, god-forbid you get anywhere near them, for sex is just about the last thing they want to be getting up to….

Scientist unanimously agree that SAD is partly brought about by the lack of sunlight during winter. But at the suggestion of it perhaps being a form of human hibernation, many evolutionists find themselves up in arms. Even so, there has been plenty of evidence in support of this notion. Sufferers of SAD appear to undergo the same physiological “winding down” as hibernating animals do: their heart rates decrease while their oxygen uptake is reduced and metabolic breakdown lowered. Furthermore, humans were recently discovered to have genetic sequences resembling two hibernation genes. These genes, jadedly dubbed PL and PDK-4, switch the mammalian metabolism from its normal mode of breaking down carbohydrates to burning fat reserves instead, an essential feat of hibernation. This, alongside the correlation between the incidence of SAD and the reduced daylight hours, appears to mount a rather strong case for human hibernation. Perhaps this disorder is a kind of evolutionary relic, a few tangles of leftover DNA (courtesy of an ancestor that did hibernate) causing modern day havoc.

Yet, there are many areas where the theory does fall short. Hibernating animals are capable of outlasting near subzero temperatures and surviving up to five months without feeding, sourcing all of their energy from their body fat. It goes without saying that none of us could come even close to achieving that. Looking to our closest evolutionary relatives for some support also won’t do. No other great ape has yet been observed exhibiting definitive hibernation-like traits (seeing as apes live in tropical weathers), so for now, scientists are still confused as to how some obscure ancestor’s hibernating genes might have filtered down to us. As it stands, the field of human hibernation appears to be much unchartered.

Conversely, other scientists prefer to ignore the bigger evolutionary picture. Dr Alfred J. Lewy, a leading psychiatrist at the Oregon Health & Science University, believes that the drowsiness of this condition is simply due to disturbances in the sleep cycle. Shorter days might be upsetting the circadian rhythm of SAD sufferers, thus their body compensates for its perceived loss of rest by sleeping more. If this theory can be proven, new types of control and preventative treatments could be made available. Just as with people who have jet-lag, doctors could prescribe their SAD patients melatonin. Melatonin occurs naturally in the mammalian body and is produced by our brain to maintain our body clock. It is secreted in high amounts during the evening to induce sleepiness and reduced during daytime when there is sunlight. Hence, to re-establish a normal circadian rhythm in sufferers of insomnia (and potentially, SAD), this drug can be administered at specific times of the day.

Nevertheless, there are a variety of effective treatment options already available. The simplest one of these involves sitting in front of an artificial light (which emits up to 10, 000 lux) for 45 minutes each morning. This appears to alleviate the unhealthy appetite and tiredness for the rest of the day. Other phototherapeutic treatments use a “dawn simulator”, where the bedroom light slowly turns on in lieu of dawn, fooling the body into thinking that it is summer. And as an alternative or in conjunction to phototherapy, SAD patients are also offered behavioural therapy, which aims to improve the person’s negative attitude toward the winter season.

Regular exercise and a high protein diet has also been proven to be a nip in the bud. And if all else fails, there is always the option of escaping to a sunnier climate for that winter, though finances and employment will have to be taken into serious consideration.

But first and foremost, I’d encourage anyone with SAD to stay as optimistic as possible. Even as the longing for those distant, halcyon days of summer deepens, preoccupy your mind with positive thoughts. A little positivity can go a long way. As for the less mentally encumbered, the Christmas period might provide a great excuse to drink yourself unconscious, but don’t forget to put your health and safety first. I am sure you could still deem returning to your next academic term in one piece a Christmas well-spent.

Now, before I let you loose on the rest of your hedonistic holiday, I offer you this insightful, parting thought. In 2002, a genuine study published in the Journal of Happiness Studies discovered that quality time spent with friends and family contributed the most to people’s enjoyment of Christmas; on the flipside, more materialistic elements such as gift-giving were associated with stress and less wellbeing. So enjoy your Christmas, no matter how disappointing your parents’ gifts, and don’t forget to lookout for those Machiavellian greetings cards. Somebody might just be plotting to become your new best friend.

Eric John

Editor’s Note: That’s it for now. The Weekly Scientist shall return after next year’s exam season, when all of our writers will hopefully have recovered from their seasonal overindulgences and the trauma of January exams. Thank you very much for reading/commenting and please keep doing so! For now, I wish you a very happy Christmas and an awesome New Year!

(Image courtesy of Corey Ann)


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