Holiday Cards Really Do Spread Cheer, Study Says

December 11, 1997

University Park, Pa --- A Penn State study has shown that receiving Christmas, Hanukkah and New Year's cards really do make people happy.

It's worth the effort, says Dr. Karen Fingerman, assistant professor of human development and family studies and leader of the study. "The cards can't do harm and probably will do somebody some good," she adds.

Fingerman and graduate student Patricia C. Griffiths, doctoral candidate in human development and family studies, asked 87 women and men, ages 24 to 87, to complete a general background questionnaire and a survey about every holiday greeting they received during December and January last year. The participants also gave the researchers up to 25 of the most meaningful cards they received and completed a questionnaire on each one.

The two researchers found that on average the respondents reported receiving 5 to 10 cards from close friends or relatives. The rest of the cards were from more distant contacts whom the recipients hadn't seen for a year or more.

"Many of the contacts truly represent 'holiday greeting relationships' confined to seasonal contact, rather than ongoing social relationships," Fingerman says.

Nevertheless, the peripheral nature of the relationship between the sender and receiver did not prevent the receiver from drawing meaning and moderate pleasure from the cards. In fact, a higher numbers of cards received was associated with enhanced feelings of well-being.

Griffiths says, "For many of the older recipients, the cards were a link to their personal past, a living memory. They took them as a reaffirmation of self -- of who they were and how they got to where they were. They found comfort in and derived meaning from the continued existence of a form of the social contact that transcends time and geographic distance."

The younger card recipients tended to see the cards as a way to build up and maintain social contacts and took pleasure in the affirmation of a social contact that the card represented.

Fingerman notes that the Penn State study also revealed, contrary to current theory, that older adults do maintain peripheral relationships. Current theory suggests that, as people age, they reduce social contacts to a limited number involving close family and friends. The holiday card study shows that older adults also maintain certain peripheral relationships. One women in the study sent 300 and received 165 cards.

Griffiths says, "The number of cards individuals received was often associated with feelings of social 'embeddedness.' In this study, receiving a large quantity of holiday cards may buffer against the sense that one's social network is being depleted."

Fingerman and Griffiths reported their findings at the 50th annual meeting of the Gerontological Association of American in Cincinnati in November. Fingerman says that studying holiday cards represents a new way to study how people maintain social ties and derive meaning from them. The study, which was supported with research start-up funds Fingerman received from the University, used no funds or other support from greeting card companies.

She adds, "Using other measures and methodologies, previous researchers overlooked these non-salient peripheral relationships that we identified. This methodology also has the advantage of conserving the actual social stimuli, the card, for further study."

Saving the cards wasn't a priority for the recipients, however. Most throw them out when the holiday is over.


EDITORS: To contact Dr. Fingerman, call (814) 863-0241 or e-mail
Patricia Griffiths can be reached at by email.

Barbara Hale (814) 865-9481 (office) (814) 238-0997 (home)
Vicki Fong (814) 865-9481 (office) (814) 238-1221 (home)

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