Blog post

Christmas holidays: The Paradox of happiness in holiday depression

Yasuhiro Kotera, Academic Lead for Counselling at University of Derby Online Learning, talks about holiday depression at Christmas time and how Gestalt awareness continuum and NLP timeline exercises could help.

By Yasuhiro Kotera - 12 December 2017

Mental Health at Christmas

Splashes of green and red, a warm fireplace, well-decorated trees, and merry music – Christmas is here. Some people started celebrating Christmas as soon as Halloween was over; many of us are relieved to have already finished Christmas shopping; and others are still, happily in panic finding what to buy.

In many western countries, Christmas is the most religiously identified event. As a non-westerner, when I first saw it, I was shocked to see how extravagantly Christmas was celebrated in the west. I was studying at Emory University in Atlanta, and the whole University and city were completely ‘Christmasised’.

After several years, however, when I was doing my master’s programme and working as a therapist in San Francisco, I learned a new aspect of Christmas: holiday depression. Especially in January, we experienced a slightly higher client intake than previous months, which echoes several studies that reported the number of admissions to mental health services decreased during the holiday, but increased after.

But our mental health is not limited to the numbers in the professional services. Our experiential sense matters too. A couple of studies investigated this in various populations, including P O Peretti, and found that loneliness was highlighted in their feelings towards the Christmas holiday. They believed that everyone else was having a lovely family time, which is not necessarily true. This untrue expectation that ‘I must be also having a great time, as everyone is’ can cause people to feel depressed. It is interesting to note that now many people are aware of holiday depression, but at the same time they still believe everyone around them is having the best time.

Paradox of happiness

This is a similar notion to the paradox of happiness. As a non-native English speaker, I often look up the origins of the words. ‘Hap’ in the word ‘happiness’ includes the meaning of accidentally. This may explain why so many people expect, and even plan, to be happy, but fail. Some people are just too busy chasing happiness to live their lives and experience happiness when it is right in front of them.

This may also be related to studies exploring internal motivation, including our studies, which reported the mental wellbeing of people who have high external motivation (they are more likely to work or study to gain external rewards such as money or grades) tends to be lower than those have internal motivation (they work or study purely to enjoy it).

To counter these problems, here are some easy exercises. One is the Gestalt awareness continuum, and the other is an adjusted version of the NLP (neuro-linguistic programming) timeline intervention that participants of my research reported particularly useful.

Gestalt Awareness Continuum

This is a simple exercise to help you come into the here and now. Find a quiet and comfortable place, and breathe deeply at a comfortable level. Set a timer for five minutes (you can extend the length as you feel comfortable doing this exercise). Start describing, ideally speaking out loud, what you see, hear, or feel in the moment. For example, ‘I see a wooden table in front of me’, ‘I hear cars in the street’, ‘I feel warmth in my hands’. Keep describing your here and now, until the timer goes off. This is a good exercise for you to be aware of the present moment, which helps to cope with stress, anxiety and depression. In my clinical experience, this also helped insomniac clients.

Timeline to re-experience 3 high points of the year

Once you are able to be aware of the present by doing the awareness continuum, it would be useful to review 3 high points of this year. What were the best experiences of the year? It could be your family time, some local community event, something you did with your friends or colleagues, or something you achieved. Once you have identified those 3 experiences or points, imagine a timeline on the floor, and you are standing at the present. Now walk backward on the timeline to the first experience. Describe the experience. What was it? What made this experience one of the best? Where were you? Who were you with? What did you see or hear that made this experience great? What kinds of feelings did you experience? Do this for the other 2 experiences as well. You can do this by getting someone to ask you those questions and/or you could write them down to capture your year. This exercise helps you to enhance positive psychological constructs, such as gratitude, and also to set a goal for the coming year.

Christmas is a special time for many of us, and a good time to reflect on the passing year, and plan for the new coming year. I hope you will have a wonderful holiday.

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About the author

Yasu Kotera smiling, sitting at a table in front of tea cups and a jug of water.

Yasuhiro Kotera
Former Academic Lead in Counselling, Psychotherapy and Psychology

Dr Kotera's teaching primarily focused on mental health and research modules including supervision at both undergraduate and postgraduate levels.