During the holiday season on the popular children’s show “Sesame Street,” the cast would frequently sing about avoiding the post-holiday blues. Muppets and children would croon:
“These precious moments, hold them very dear,
And keep Christmas with you all through the year.”
The sentiment is sweet, but the lyricist didn’t specify what “precious moments” generate the “many happy feelings to celebrate” or provide any concrete practices to keep those feelings alive. We’re each meant to use our own holiday memories to color within those lines.
But what if research helped identify the precise kind of precious moments experienced during important religious holidays like Hanukkah and Christmas that were tightly correlated with a stronger sense of purpose, greater happiness, higher quality relationships and emotional closeness? Could such research provide a blueprint for keeping the holiday spirit with us throughout the year?
The Wheatley Institute and the Institute for Family Studies conducted an 11-country survey with more than 16,000 respondents that looked closely at family religious practices and matched them with outcomes like life meaning, happiness, relationship quality and emotional closeness. What we discovered is that the kind of things that families might do during religious holidays and festivals — if practiced regularly — are highly correlated to astoundingly positive personal outcomes.
Specifically, we probed what it meant for families to read from holy writ together, to pray together, to talk about faith with one another and to make the effort to attend services at a church, synagogue, temple or mosque.
The dynamic effect of such practices is powerful. In a newly released report, we found that individuals who engage in home-centered religious practices are nearly twice as likely as their less religious peers, and more than four times more likely than their nonreligious peers, to report feeling a high sense of meaning and purpose in their lives. They are also significantly more likely to report high levels of life satisfaction and happiness.
Likewise, individuals who engage in regular patterns of home worship also report significantly higher relationship stability, emotional closeness and sexual satisfaction in their marriages than individuals who only attend church regularly or don’t attend church at all. Couples who regularly engage in home religious practices also report significantly higher levels of shared decision making between partners, fewer money problems. and more frequent patterns of loving behavior such as forgiveness, commitment and kindness than their less-religious peers.
These findings suggest that there are increased benefits for individuals and families who experience the highest level of “religious dosage” — which involves religious practices in the home.
Admittedly, our research didn’t aim to explore what makes holidays special, and not all families lean into the religious aspects of our traditional holidays. But many do. At this time of year, people may offer grace over a meal with increased intentionality. They may open up scripture to retell the ancient origins of their celebration. They may go to religious services together. What the research indicates is that if families make these practices a regular part of their daily family life, instead of a seasonal “one-off,” they are likely to profoundly improve their life satisfaction and the sense of connection in their homes.
A curious aspect of the research was that in order to achieve the full benefit, participating in religious services was necessary — but not sufficient. The full personal benefits of family religious engagement are experienced by those who actively engage in home-centered practices. So, if you are looking to “Keep Christmas With You” might we recommend emphasizing praying as a family and reading holy writ together in addition to finding regularly a pew for you and the kids.
We know from experience how challenging it can be to gather the family together for an in-home devotional or to attend a worship service. But if our multinational survey of thousands of individuals suggests anything, it teaches that such moments are indeed precious and are especially meaningful because of the powerful results that they bring when practiced regularly. So, along with our friends at “Sesame Street,” we encourage you to consider which precious moments from the holidays are indeed most meaningful, and then strive to keep Christmas or Hanukkah (or whatever holiday you celebrate) with you all through the year.
Jason S. Carroll is the associate director of the Wheatley Institute and a professor in the School of Family Life at Brigham Young University. Paul S. Edwards is the director of the Wheatley Institute at Brigham Young University. This essay was originally published by the Dallas Morning News and is used with permission.