Is Christmas music actually bad for your mental health?
I recently was on Facebook and noticed that a number of people shared news articles all with similar headlines along the lines of 'British Psychologist Says Christmas Music is Bad for Mental Health'. Immediately they all grabbed my attention as they seemed like more of those gimmicky media headlines that often come out of genuine psychology studies. I'll start by making a note about my own Christmas music preferences. Personally, I like Christmas music, but I do find it gets old fast. It's nice when stores slowly start dropping a Christmas tune into their regular music mix as it gets closer to the big day, but I'm not a big fan of full blown holiday tunes blasting in every store all the time from the 1st of November.
Essentially all of these articles were referring to comments from a clinical psychologist about Christmas music. Let me start by saying that I agree with Clinical Psychologist Linda Blair, when she says that constant Christmas music in retail settings can be harmful to an employee's mental health. Christmas is supposed to be all about spreading cheer and joy while enjoying the snowfall, quirky Christmas movies, hot chocolates and spending time with loved ones. However, Christmas can be a very stressful time for many. There is so much materialistic pressure for everyone to buy shiny, expensive gifts and live up to expectations of others during the holiday season. The number of Christmas parties all around can be very stressful for people with anxiety. Family gatherings can be mentally taxing for those in the LGBTQA+ communities whose families may not have accepted who they are just yet. For someone in bereavement, the holidays can be quite sad as that person learns how to navigate different holidays without their loved one. For anyone being treated for a psychological disorder in a psychiatric hospital, the holidays might not be such a happy occasion as that person may not be able to go home during this time. For people who do not celebrate Christmas, I imagine it must be incredibly annoying after the first week of Christmas music blaring everywhere.
See, it's easy to understand why Christmas time can be taxing on someones mental health. Imagine being an employee of a retail store in which you are constantly berated with Christmas music and also have something going on with your mental health at the time. With each song comes a reminder of all the gifts you may not be able to afford or how awful it was as your family questioned you about your sexuality over the dinner table the previous year. That would definitely be hard on your mental health. If Linda Blair is saying that Christmas music can be harmful to workers mental health, then it is likely something she has heard directly from clients before. I know this for myself as an Assistant Psychologist as well. Client's often do express anxious thoughts or excessive worry as the holidays as roll around and I completely understand why.
However, I have two issues with seeing these headlines all around. They turn a statement from a clinical psychologist into a large overblown conclusion about Christmas music. Firstly, Linda's statements were specific to people who are often surrounded by Christmas music, particularly retail workers who have to listen each shift. In the video from Sky News, the context of her statements are made clear and it makes sense. In the paired article, she generalizes more about retail shoppers as well, but does not make a single definitive overarching statement. Rather, she understands that the negative impact of Christmas music and offers relevant examples such as being stressed about all the things one might have to plan during the holiday season. The article also cites other sources that support the idea of Christmas music being problematic for mental health. This is good. Instead of making a drastic statement from one short interview with just one expert, the author of the articles does a bit more research AND doesn't make drastic definitive statements in the headline.
Then you take something like this headline from FoxNews. I find the headline to be misleading and unfortunate because these days, in the world of 'fake news', we know that some people are just reading headlines and taking them as fact. It's an example of sensationalizing a statement from a professional rather than basing it off of an evidence-based conclusion. This is also quite a strong statement. The headline doesn't ask about whether Christmas music is linked to mental health. It definitively states that it's bad for your mental health withOUT backing it up by including additional psychological research outside of Dr. Blair's statements.
This headline from the Independent does that same thing. It states a definitive 'fact' in a headline without backing anything up in the article; all while hardly discussing what Dr. Blair said. For someone who isn't familiar with psychological science, the '...according to clinical psychologist' part can really make it sound very official. In reality, Dr. Blair is a qualified clinical psychologist who likely used her own qualitative experiences with clients to start a discussion about the different ways Christmas music can negatively impact our mental health. She did not draw any definitive conclusions about the relationship between the music and the mental health or direct us to any studies that do. These are just two articles of many more just like them. Do a quick Google search and you will see what I mean.
You may be asking why I'm taking the time to rant about these articles. The reason is that as an aspiring psychologist, I have a bit of a beef with all these headlines attached to articles that don't direct us to scientific, peer-reviewed studies to support the facts. Why is this? If the research is out there, then writers should work to critically assess what the science world tells us. This way the public would be informed by evidence, not just the statement of a single clinical psychologist.
Now one article that actually had some merit was this one from a website called HelloGiggles. At first I was like, how can they say 'according to research'?!?! But then, as I began reading the article I was at least a little more impressed with the evidence they provided to the reader. The author brings in the science around the 'mere exposure effect'. While it takes a few clicking on links, bouncing from article to article and searching online you finally do land on some studies around music and the mere exposure effect. Like this one here, which outlines the way we can become satiated with music. The Hello Giggles also cite a survey in which 34% of people surveyed were not as enthused about Christmas tunes. However, to again make the statement that Christmas music is bad for your mental and say 'according to research' in the headline is still dodgy as they didn't cite a study that looked directly at the relationship between Christmas music and mental health.
Now I have no issue with psychology being discussed in popular media. In fact, I think it's important for psychologists to be active in the media, as it allows society to become more aware of mental health issues and become more comfortable discussing them. The more we talk about mental health openly and honestly, the better we fight against the stigma attached to it. It's just that in today's environment of where people may simply scan headlines or watch half a video bouncing around social media, then taking each one as an unbiased fact (as some people do), it makes me a little uncomfortable. Though perhaps I should have more confidence in people and their ability to assess what's true for themselves.
I think this article by psychology researcher Dr. Larry Rosen, perfectly captures how annoying it is to scientists when research and statements from psychologists can be distorted by the media. He demonstrates the way that initial scientific findings can be distorted in popular media; cherry-picking the catchiest finds and taking them out of context for the public to digest. The way Dr. Rosen feels about his own findings and the media is exactly how I feel when I see all the gimmicky headlines on Twitter and Facebook! Also this article puts together a really comprehensive review of the ways that the media can misinform the public about scientific findings.
A good example of what media reports about mental health can aspire to can be found in this short article from the American Psychological Association. The brief outlines the effects of violent media on behaviour. The references at the bottom allow anyone reading to follow up themselves on conclusions that may have been drawn in the article. It holds the writer accountable and informs the public with scientific evidence. This encourages members of public to critically think about what they've read and the science behind it as well. Also, by including perspectives from both sides of the topic demonstrates an effort to remain unbiased. Sure, it may not be as catchy of a read, but it's informed.
Doing my own research, I found no peer-reviewed studies on the topic of Christmas music specifically and mental health. I searched through three databases: PsycInfo, and Psychiatry Online, as well as Google Scholar. This is not to say that Dr. Blair is wrong or exaggerating in her statement about the relationship between mental health and Christmas music. It just means that perhaps general news articles shouldn't make definitive connections between the two, based off of one statement from a clinical psychologist. I did find this peer-reviewed article about how Christmas music and scents can affect us while shopping around. It's very interesting and definitely worth a read. This study was mentioned in a few of the articles about Dr. Blair's statements, but it should still be noted that specific mental health outcomes were not investigated as part of the study.
I would like to emphasize once more that it's very likely that Dr. Linda Blair has seen a connection between mental health and Christmas music in her own clinical work, leading her to make the statement. I think it's great that psychologists advocate for change and inform the public about the problems we see in our everyday work. My problem is not with Dr. Linda Blair. It is with the media.
Overall, this lack of scientific evidence in the news articles is quite frustrating from someone who conducts psychological research. There is a remainder of people out in the world who don't believe that psychology is actually a science. There are also dodgy researchers within the psychology field who manipulate data in order to draw big conclusions about tiny bits of theoretical evidence (more about that here). If the general media continues to perpetuate incorrect psychology-based 'findings' through gimmicky headlines and a lack of actual evidence, we will never escape the times of fake news. Readers should start holding their favourite media outlets accountable and always be critically thinking about what is handed to us.
Well, now that all of THAT is off of my chest and Thanksgiving is over; pour yourself some wine or hot chocolate, turn on your Christmas lights (when you think it's the right time of course) and start jamming out to Fairytale of New York (aka the best Christmas song out there, in my opinion, with the exception of the word f*****t of course, I don't like when that word is used obviously).
So happy holidays and stay tuned for more posts from Lady Mac Lifestyle.