Looking forward to Christmas

In the West, it’s relatively easy to get caught up in the euphoria of Christmas, isn’t it? Regardless of one’s beliefs in the origins of the Universe and humanity’s place in it, countless millions of us succumb to the fake snow and the artificial sentimentality. The twinkling lights, the shops full cotton polymer resin reindeer, the children’s (and adult toys), chocolate goodies, the interminable loops of festive songs on the radio, the TV shows you just know were recorded in July but have jolly tinsel and baubles nevertheless. Then there are the parties, the lunchtime “Christmas” drinks, Secret Santa, the bustling shopping centres, the ubiquitous sound of a Jingle Bells sample in every muzak track. Oh isn’t it all so wonderful?

Aside from the expense and the endless pressure to buy, buy, buy and give, give, give, it is inevitable that the perennially hyped event is almost always more “Bah, humbug!” than “Ho, ho, ho!” Inevitable, you say? Surely not. Season of goodwill, joy and rejoicing? Fun and festivities? Even ignoring economic recession, general strikes, terminal healthcare services, a deliberate dearth of the latest fad gadget in the shops, there are good psychological reasons why philosophers since time immemorial have told us that the point of the journey is not to arrive. Christmas, and indeed countless other enforced celebrations the world over are really all about the preparation. The “Big Day”, whichever day that happens to be, usually sees the climax sputtering out as something of a damp squib and a dread of feeling of: “Is that it?”

Does that mean we are essentially wired for anticipation rather than the climax of an event destined to feel like a let down when it finally comes? It would seem so. I have discussed addiction in the Pivot Points column and elsewhere before. One novel idea that has since come to light from research into the biochemistry and psychology of addiction is that addicts do not necessarily crave the reward. It is not the end-point of their addiction, the fix, whether that is to illicit drugs, alcohol, sex, gambling, tinsel, or whatever, that is the point. It is the anticipation of the reward.

Of course, there is certainly the whole cascade of chemical reactions that take place in the brain involving dopamine, serotonin, oxytocin and countless, truly countless, other molecules that trigger feelings of reward, pleasure, comfort etc. But, there is also the priming of those systems by the anticipation, the metaphorical feeling of heading out the door, hopping on the train, or jumping in the sack, for instance.

If you doubt it, then think back to those special occasions of childhood, birthdays, and for many, Christmas. The excitement, the sleepless nights…the anticipation. The unwrapping of presents is the most exciting part. Once you got the quick fix of a gift unwrapped, you craved another and another. The first present often discarded as the bright and shiny sheet of ribbons and wrapping paper is ripped from the next. Anticipation.

Dopamine could be the most dangerous chemical in the world. It’s the brain chemical most directly involved in feelings of reward. The chemical released at the moment the fix hits. But, as we are beginning to recognise, the fix isn’t the point. It’s the anticipation. We seek out those things that prime us for those feelings and that dopamine rush.

This idea has been the focus of Stanford biologist Robert Sapolsky. Earlier this year, he demonstrated that anticipation is actually its own reward. Seemingly, dopamine does not peak at the moment the fix hits. It is at its height during the anticipatory period. This would perhaps explain exactly what I am talking about: it’s the ripping off of wrapping not what is being unwrapped that is the prize itself. Controversially, Sapolsky has extrapolated the concept of sustaining anticipation to suggest that this very state might well be the origins of belief in an afterlife, and thus Christmas itself. A long-term anticipation of reward if ever there was one.

In the words of the song: “Enjoy yourself, it’s later than you think”. So, eat, drink and be merry. And, don’t get too down when you’ve ripped off all the wrapping.

David Bradley

David is a freelance science journal with more than a quarter of a century in the field. His best-selling book, Deceived Wisdom is available now.

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