The turkey was dry, the TV specials were disappointing, you felt sick from the volume of Quality Street you consumed and come 4pm, your family were teetering precariously on the cliff edge of an almighty row.
Yet, back at work, you will answer the inevitable question – “How was your Christmas” – with the inevitable answer: “Good, thanks.”
Admitting you’ve had a less than perfect Christmas, seems, well, a little unChristmassy. After all, it is supposed to be the most wonderful time of the year – at least according to those picture-perfect ads.
This expectation that 25 December must be joyful at all costs can be particularly hard for those with mental health issues, people experiencing loneliness, those with chronic illness and those living in poverty. But for many of us who, on the outside, have no obvious reason to feel glum, it can also be a bit “mehh”.
Rosy, 24, from Clacton-on-Sea, says nothing massively went wrong in 2017, but it was still the worst Christmas she’s ever had.
“The house had no decorations, we had a burnt Christmas dinner and the family spent the day arguing about the ‘crap’ presents that they got,” she recalls.
When she returned to work, Rosy didn’t elaborate extensively on her lacklustre festivities – and puts that down to the growing pressure to have the perfect Christmas. “I think that Christmas has become more about money and vanity than just a day to relax,” she says. “For example, now you don’t just have to worry about getting someone a present, it has to be the right present, something they’ve asked for, which is a bit ungrateful, if you think about it.”
The expectation to have a good Christmas is nothing new, but social media has shifted the goal posts, says Dr Anastasia Dedyukhina, founder of Consciously Digital and author of Homo Distractus.
Two forces that drive our social interactions year round are even more dominant at Christmas, she explains. These are ‘linking’ and ‘ranking’.
Linking is all about feeling emotional connection. It releases oxytocin, the bonding hormone. Ranking is driven by dopamine, the achievement hormone, and serotonin, which is linked to social recognition. “Both of these behaviours are needed in society,” says Dr Dedyukhina. “However, the problem is that social media is full of ‘ranking’ behaviour – think likes, number of followers and other numerical signs of success – even if they pretend to be ‘linking’.”
The upshot of all this is that viewing other people’s social posts over Christmas can have a very real impact on your hormones and ultimately lead to you being less satisfied with your own festivities.
“When you see an Instagram post of a popular influencer in a beautiful dress with a gorgeous boyfriend in front of a Christmas tree, it puts your serotonin level down. You feel as if you have achieved less,” Dr Dedyukhina explains. “If on top of that you are struggling with real life meaningful connections, your oxytocin may go down as well.”
So, what can you do if you’re feeling envious of everyone else’s Christmases?
A digital detox is the obvious first step. “If anything makes you feel rubbish, stop doing it – this includes eating, drinking, being in a toxic relationship or being on social media,” says Dr Dedyukhina.
If you can’t resist the urge to post, it can helpful to be mindful of why you’re doing it – plus remember that others posting on Instagram are also “trying to improve their social ranking”, says Dedyukhina. In other words, the seemingly “perfect” may not be so self-assured after all.
Away from social media, it’s important to get the basics right and take a holistic approach to wellbeing.
Our guide on how to find balance with food, alcohol and sleep amidst the party season could help you go into Christmas feeling more positive.
You might also want to consider what is missing from your life, then make a plan to find it over the holiday season and beyond.
“Our bodies are wise, and when we get negative emotions, they are sending us signals that something is wrong,” says Dr Dedyukhina. “Are you lacking true social connections? Perhaps you could do something around it, from calling a few ex-colleagues to going and volunteering somewhere for Christmas – a great way to build up your oxytocin and feel connected to others for a good cause.”
Another tactic is to think about what’s really important to you at Christmas time. “It should be more about having nice food and showing friends and family that you appreciate them,” says Rosy.
But perhaps, the best way for us all to break the perpetual cycle of expectation and disappointment is all to be a little more honest come new year.
How was your Christmas? “A bit shit actually – but that’s okay.”