THE ‘FEEL-GOOD’ HORMONES
This is your brain on a Christmas movie — it releases oxytocin and dopamine, the so-called “feel-good” hormones which fight low mood and anxiety, says British psychologist and researcher Jo Gee, who studies triggers of positive emotions in the brain.
“Christmas movies are generally good for mental health as they have a powerful effect on our mood,” Gee told The Star by email.
“Alongside dopamine which triggers the emotion of happiness, oxytocin makes us want to reach out to friends and family, which can further boost our mood through increased social interaction.”
Networks, in fact, promote viewing as a group activity. Winfrey’s OWN encourages viewers to watch its Christmas movies “with the ones you love.”
Hallmark sells the gear for watch parties, from wine glasses and cocoa mugs to socks printed with a message that can be seen when you put your feet up on the coffee table: “If you can read this, these are my Hallmark Christmas movie watching socks.”
“I think there are an awful lot of good things in these movies that make us happy, and in that way I think they’re good for our mental health,” said Wilson.
“Obviously if you’re struggling with your mental health you’re not feeling good. And that’s one of the things about Christmas movies — they try to make you feel good. Who doesn’t want to feel good at Christmas?
“And it doesn’t always come so easy, whether you have mental health issues or not. Christmas isn’t always a feel-good time for everybody. So this is the appeal for Christmas movies.”
In his research over the years, Young has asked many people what movies have been important in their lives, and why. “People come up with a whole lot of answers,” said Young, who is fond of the animated “A Charlie Brown Christmas.”
“However, the Christmas movie genre comes up with great regularity. There’s a number of things that could be said about why. But one thing that jumps out is that … these movies almost always were (watched) as part of a group, most commonly family. People say, ‘we watched them together.’ So it goes beyond the content of the film.
“The most powerful thing is people saying this film reminds me of family. In a lot of people’s minds they have a special resonance.”
Real estate agent Brette Johnston of Overland Park is a fan of Hallmark’s Christmas movies. Her husband, Tyler, also a big fan of the holidays, wore a Santa Suit to propose to her in June 2017.
Brette Johnston of Overland Park knows what he means.
She jokes that she is Hallmark Channel’s “exact demographic,” such a lover of the holidays that her husband, Tyler, climbed into a Santa suit in the summer of 2017 to propose. Their dog is named Todd after the obnoxious yuppie neighbor in “National Lampoon’s Christmas Vacation.”
“Hallmark movies in general are just feel-good movies. They’re easy watches,” said Johnston, a 27-year-old real estate agent who often watches the movies with her mom. “They always have a good story that just makes you feel good. And then you add in the element of holidays and it just elevates it to that next level.”
She knows that people mock the movies for their formulaic stories. She doesn’t care.
“I agree that they are all alike,” said Johnston. “I know Hallmark is often criticized for having the story line of the successful girl who lives in the big city and then gives up that life for the small-town boy. I’ve seen a lot of jokes about that.
“But I think it’s just nice to get a little lost in the simplicity of it … they just feel good. I think there’s the overall feeling of, this sounds so cheesy, hope and what the holidays can bring and maybe pulling people out of a slump.”
SPOILER ALERT: THERE’S ALWAYS A HAPPY ENDING
In 2018, thanks to its nine-week “Countdown to Christmas” movie extravaganza, the Hallmark Channel closed out the year as the “highest-rated and most-watched cable network” for the fourth quarter among women ages 18 to 54, according to Broadcasting & Cable, which covers the TV industry.
“I think one of the key things that makes people feel good, and the people that make Christmas TV movies have figured this out, there’s a formula,” said Wilson, the TV historian, who lives in Akron, Ohio.
TV historian Joanna Wilson has watched hundreds of hours of Christmas entertainment created for TV and is currently updating “Tis the Season TV: The Encyclopedia of Christmas-Themed Episodes, Specials and Made-for-TV Movies.”
“On one hand, that makes critics say, ‘Oh, all these movies are predictable so they all must be terrible.’ But I think the crowds at Christmas Con and the ratings that Hallmark gets prove that this formula is actually desirable.
“We like people coming together. We like happiness. We like happy endings. We like the predictability of these things, maybe even more so at Christmas when our lives aren’t always so predictable.
“We can’t always get Uncle Frank or Uncle Bill to shut his mouth about politics. Or get Aunt Flo to stop talking about religion and just pass the mashed potatoes.
“But you know what? Those Hallmark movies, those Lifetime movies are predictable, they are positive and upbeat. And I think people are really drawn to that.”
The people who make the movies are unapologetic about their formulas for merry and bright programming. They have figured out which heartstrings to pull.
At Lifetime — where the core audience for Christmas movies is women ages 25 to 54 — the not-so-secret sauce consists of romance, family, Christmas trappings and sometimes magic, like the weird stuff that happens around town when the man you think might be Santa shows up.
“There is a bit of a, sort of a formula, or rhythm for them, that we actually believe is important. And I would say we lean into that,” said Meghan Hooper, the Lifetime senior vice president who oversees the network’s holiday programming.