Holiday Activities That Improve Cognitive Function

Thanksgiving, Christmas, Hanukkah, or New Year—the holiday season is known to be stressful. The burden of financial expenditures, judgmental family members, and the hustle and bustle of gatherings sometimes seems like too much to bear. However, the holidays are also a time of joy and fellowship. When balancing the additional responsibilities, these holiday activities can actually improve the key thinking skills involved in cognitive function.

Holiday Activities That Improve Cognitive Function
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Holiday Activities That Improve Cognitive Function: Caroling

“Deck the halls with boughs of holly…”

It’s nearly impossible to sing holiday carols with a straight face. Belting your favorite carols are just one example of how holiday activities improve cognitive function. Singing is a form of exercise. As the lungs fill with air, singing causes blood to circulate around the body and to the brain more efficiently. The body releases feel-good endorphins while singing, and as a result, researchers at the University of London believe singing connects the nervous system to the endocrine and immune systems. Singing in a group of carolers is a significant self-esteem booster.

Holiday Activities That Improve Cognitive Function: Decorating

Stringing lights, lighting candles, choosing the perfect Christmas tree ornament, setting the table just so—decorating for the holidays enhances creativity. Decorating builds anticipation for the event, conjuring up positive memories from past celebrations, and offers thoughts of hope that is to come. It is the opportunity to practice cognitive skills such as planning and organization.

Holiday Activities That Improve Cognitive Function

Holiday Activities That Improve Cognitive Function: Gift Giving

The winter holidays are abounding with gifts. The act of gift-giving has a direct impact on the nervous system. Altruism and generosity trigger the release of dopamine and feel-good endorphins connected to the reward circuit in the brain. These chemicals counteract stress hormones like cortisol. The feelings of pleasure create drive us to participate in acts of kindness more often. The holidays do not only indicate the giving of material items such as gifts. People donate food, time, and money to causes they feel they can make a difference in. A study conducted by John Hopkins University reports that those who frequently give have lower stress levels and reduced incidence of high blood pressure.

Holiday Activities That Improve Cognitive Function: Spending Time With Loved Ones

Your old great aunt Betty may drive you utterly insane, but quality time with loved ones during the holidays does have benefits. Family experiences furthers cognitive development, especially in children. Bonding with family and friends releasing the hormone oxytocin. Oxytocin is rooted in maternal tendencies and is responsible for trust and social attachment. The hormone has a vast impact on cognitive skills. For example, boosting oxytocin increases emotional recognition. Someone with higher levels of oxytocin more easily recognize the emotions of others. Studies indicate that those with “social stress”—much influenced by oxytocin—performed poorly on logic and reasoning skills. Oxytocin receptors are located in the prefrontal cortex and the hippocampus, which control attention, learning, memory, and intelligence.

Holiday Activities That Improve Cognitive Function: Eating

Santa’s chocolate cookies, the famous pumpkin pie grandma serves every Thanksgiving, and let’s not forget the turkey or honey glazed ham reserved for special occasions. The holidays definitely revolve around food…and lots of it! However, the foods consumed during the holidays fuel our brains. Pumpkin contains vitamin A and C, which regulates the communication between cells. Turkey is a lean source of protein. Even the cinnamon in many holiday desserts reduces inflammation and cholesterol. These key nutrients facilitate cognitive skills like memory. Some evidence suggests they lower the risk of developing dementia, as high amounts of cholesterol form beta-amyloid plaques that damage the brain in those with Alzheimer’s disease.

Holidays Activities That Improve Cognitive Function: Vacationing

With the holidays often comes time off from typical work responsibilities. The change in routine is helpful in reducing stress and promoting a positive mood. For example, a study in Canada found that of the 800 employees, even brief vacations reduced depression and job-related stress. This is because they were removed from a tedious, stressful environment. There is further evidence from the University of Copenhagen that the holidays increase dopamine and serotonin, which are two neurotransmitters that influence pleasure. Those who participate in holidays such as Christmas had more activity brain activity in the sensory-motor cortex when exposed to Christmas-related images.

Holiday Activities That Improve Cognitive Function: Following Traditions

Traditions are behaviors that are purposefully repeated at the same specific time and way. Traditions are undoubtedly a significant aspect of the holiday season. A tradition as simple as baking gingerbread cookies has the power to unite groups of people. The connections formed amongst the groups of people following a tradition is undoubtedly strong. It is helpful in increasing cognitive function by establishing a sense of identity and instilling confidence and self-esteem.

Holiday Activities That Improve Cognitive Function: Playing Games

On Thanksgiving, my family plays board games. Once Christmas arrives, we huddle around the table laughing and putting together a jigsaw puzzle. Playing games are a popular pastime during the holiday season. As work obligations temporarily slow down, there is extra time to partake in fun hobbies. Processing speed, the time it takes to complete a mental task, is a cognitive skill refined by playing games. Studies conducted with elderly patients at the University of Edinburgh revealed that those who played games like chess, cards, and puzzles into older age exhibited less of a decline in memory and thinking speed.

Holiday Activities That Improve Cognitive Function: Watching Movies

However cheesy, a good holiday movie supports brain health. It decreases anxiety and depression by stimulating the brain to release the neurotransmitter dopamine. The plot of holiday movies are simple and a welcome distraction from the dai;y stressors of life. The best benefits are when we watch holiday films with family and friends.

Holiday Activities That Improve Cognitive Function: Sending Cards

The closest we can get to sending joy is mailing out holiday cards. Although virtual communication and e-cards are feasible in modern times, statistics show that Americans send approximately 1.3 billion cards via “snail mail.”

Sending holiday cards connects family and friends over long distances, as well as reduces feelings of isolation and depression. Receiving a card in the mail allows others to know you are thinking of them even if they are unable to visit.

Holiday Activities That Improve Cognitive Function: New Year Resolutions

The holiday season is a time of anticipation and hope. Many begin resolutions for the new year. Essentially, a new year’s resolution is a goal to strive for in the new year. Resolutions range from adopting a healthier lifestyle to engaging in tasks meant to reduce stress. They foster motivation and create a sense of achievement. Implementing a new year’s resolution changes the neuroplasticity of the brain. Setting challenging goals activates brain activity in the amygdala and the frontal lobe. Researchers claim that goal setting alters brain structure to behave in ways that allow the completion of that goal.


Kirsch P. Oxytocin in the socioemotional brain: implications for psychiatric disorders. Dialogues Clin Neurosci. 2015 Dec;17(4):463-76. doi: 10.31887/DCNS.2015.17.4/pkirsch. PMID: 26869847; PMCID: PMC4734884.

University of Edinburgh. (2019, November 26). Playing board games may help protect thinking skills in old age. ScienceDaily. Retrieved December 6, 2020 from

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