Santa Benefits Adults, Too

Psychologists say adults have as much to glean from the myth and magic of Santa as kids. Santa allows adults to escape the reality of their troubles and stresses. It's not too different from the many other ways adults suspend disbelief such as losing themselves in a good book or movie.

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Well, if you're feeling pretty good now that Christmas is over, you might give part of the credit to Santa Claus. The guy in the red suit is our subject on Your Health this morning.

NPR's Allison Aubrey reports on what a holiday tradition means to kids and to adults.

ALLISON AUBREY: Lots of young children have evidence that Santa is real. Take kindergartener Ryan Lotte(ph) who took a carriage ride with Santa at a Virginia shopping center last week.

Mr. RYAN LOTTE (Kindergarten Student): Sometimes kids just imagine them. The real Santa is not imaginary.

AUBREY: How do you know?

Mr. LOTT: I see him right now.

Unidentified Man: (As Santa Claus) Hello, over there. Merry Christmas. Ho, ho, ho, ho, ho.

AUBREY: And Santa has answers for older kids who asked skeptical questions such as how can you make it to so many houses in one night?

Unidentified Man: (As Santa Claus) Well, it's every difficult, sometimes. You have to be very fast, okay? And that reminds me, okay? If you happen to wake up when I'm delivering the toys, I can't stop to talk, okay?

Ms. SUE HARMON (Carriage Driver): Because I'm seeing a carrier, bouncing draft horses. And they love doing this.

AUBREY With the reigns in her hands, Santa's carriage driver, Sue Harmon(ph), gets a birds eye view of the scene. She sees the effect that Santa has on impatient shoppers.

Ms. HARMON: We're riding around the parking lot and people are in a hurry to get to different places and cutting the horses off left and right and not caring and then they see it's Santa and they're like, hey Santa, you know? And all of a sudden they're friendly in Christmas spirit.

AUBREY: Angie Belfield-Reese(ph) has brought her daughter of a ride. Being Christian, she says, the origin of Christmas is, of course, Jesus. So she said she understands the criticism of the consumerism associated with Santa. But, she says, for her family, Santa is part of the fun, part of the magic that many adults lose.

Ms. ANGIE BELFIELD-REESE: They forget that they can be a child, too, sometimes.

AUBREY: Do you feel it? Does it feel real to you?

Ms. BELFIELD-REESE: Oh, yeah, definitely. I love Christmas. And now that I have a 4-year-old, it makes it even better.

AUBREY: Lots of parents say they feel the magic or spirit. Psychologist Ellen Winner of Boston College says even adults have a need or desire for escape.

Dr. ELLEN WINNER (Director, Graduate Program, Boston College): To get out of ourselves, to get transported out of our lives. I mean, reality is certainly filled with troubles and stresses. And so it's nice to - it's like a day dream, this kind of magical thinking about Santa Claus.

AUBREY: Winner says it's really not all that different from the many other ways adults suspend disbelief. For instance, losing yourself in a good novel, or stepping into a movie theater.

The Santa paradigm can even be seen in the stock market. There's a phenomenon on Wall Street dubbed the Santa Rally where stocks many years between Christmas and New Year go up. One explanation published by Forbes is that there's happiness on Wall Street, and pessimists are on vacation.

Psychologist Michael Shermer who teaches at Claremont Graduate University has evaluated how human emotions impact financial markets. Shermer says that Santa Rally, to the extent that it really happens, may just be a self-fulfilling prophecy.

Dr. MICHAEL SHERMER (Psychologist, Claremont Graduate University): She started talking about in business this Santa effect and all of a sudden somebody does a news story about it and then that causes people to pay more attention to it, and then maybe they buy a little bit more and that actually starts to drive it forward.

AUBREY: It's a kind of social creation of reality where people talk themselves into believing certain things.

Positive emotions, in general, tend to build on each other this time of year, says Barbara Frederickson. She's a psychologist at the University of North Carolina.

Dr. BARBARA FREDERICKSON (Psychologist, University of North Carolina): I think holidays can certainly heighten all emotions.

AUBREY: She says when we have moments of extreme joy, whether they're derived from playing along with the great story, where the celebration of any ritual, you're more likely to notice even small pleasures.

So if donut and coffee may always be good, but if you're happy they're even better.

Dr. FREDERICKSON: There's sort of an upward spiral you can create because by being more open and being more joyful, more things that could cause you to feel joy as sort of seeing self-evident.

AUBREY: Parents' instincts to embrace Santa and keep the magic going seem to run deep.

Psychologist Jacqueline Woolley at the University of Texas at Austin says the tradition is certainly resilient.

Ms. JACQUELINE WOOLLEY (Psychology, University Of Texas, Austin): You know, we see childhood as a time of innocence and as a time where it's possible to believe in everything and where, you know, you can be what you want and the other world is a pretty magical place then. And I think we kind of want to give that to our children almost like a gift. You know, we want to give them a time where they can believe that anything is possible.

AUBREY: But childhood is short-lived as are the holidays. Christmas-lover Angie Belfield-Reese who's just finished the Santa ride with her daughter, that she knows what's coming.

Ms. BELFIED-REESE: Any holiday, any special occasion, any excitement, it seems to build, build, build, and then when it's all over, it's kind of sad to see it go.

AUBREY: So for adults, maybe the goal is to try to find a little magic in the rhythm of everyday life. And for kids, well, they've got their loot from Santa.

Allison Aubrey, NPR News, Washington.

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