The common wisdom holds that the holiday season is unhealthy. Too much food, too many glasses of something bubbly, too many relatives, too much spending, too much ho-ho-hoing: the weeks of excess leave many of us feeling fatter, tireder, crankier, and poorer. Holllywood's cloying family scenes remind audiences, even while crying over It's A Wonderful Life, or Miracle on 34th Street, that an angel will probably not transform their real-life chaotic households. So for lots of people, staring at football games while Aunt Emily passes her fruitcake, the season of joy segues into the season of heartache, if not heartburn. By Jan. 1, when the "have a merry ..." greetings have ended, adults are relieved to go back to pre-festive routines. In fact, most people older than 10 approach this season gingerly, warned by advice-columns about the depression, weight gain, substance abuse, and fatigue that can be side-effects of enforced jollity.
This holiday season, however, scientists have brought us wonderful news: the holidays may be good for our health. Not just benign, but actually beneficial.
First wonderful news on the nutrition front: chocolate might be the new staple of a nourishing diet. Chocolate contains flavonoids, which you may have never heard of, but now that you have, you want more and more of them. One small bar of chocolate contains as many flavonoids as six apples. At a recent meeting of the British Association for the Advancement of Science, researchers from the University of California touted the merits of flavonoids, which may reduce platelet aggregation -- and hence reduce the risk of heart disease. So all the holiday goodies, from fudge to chocolate cheesecake to hot cocoa, are no longer sinfully rich, decadent, and calorie-laden: they are nutritious, integral to a well-balanced diet. Indulge.
Wine -- especially red wine -- is maybe better than milk. After all, milk has fat; and skim milk, which has no fat, is not especially tasty. And re-constituted nonfat dry milk evokes basic training in the Marines. But wine has come into its own. It supposedly lowers all the indices we want to lower, beginning with cholesterol. It makes food taste better -- well, maybe not Aunt Emily's fruitcake -- but everything else. It makes the hours of family togetherness pleasanter. Have a glass.
Even family togetherness is healthy. Social scientists call the human hub radiating around a person "social support:" people with lots of social support generally do better health-wise than people with less. And people who are chronically ill desperately need social support. So look fondly on the melee of people crowded around your holiday table, fighting over the remote control, gossiping about absent relatives, whipping out camcorders to capture Kodak moments. They are as important to your health as vitamins.
Most importantly, optimism is healthy. Researchers from Johns Hopkins followed 586 adults who had no heart disease, but had family histories of heart disease, for up to 12 years. Almost 12% of these vulnerable potential victims experienced "events," including heart attacks. Those with optimistic personalities, however, were half as likely to suffer an "event" as the pessimists in the group. Cholesterol, obesity, and smoking were not the key determinants. Researchers have also linked heart disease and senses of humor, proving statistically that laughter strengthens the physical heart, not to mention the emotional one. We always knew that Scrooge's meanness would doom his soul, now we know that it would doom his body too.
Have a healthy, happy season.
Joan Retsinas is a sociologist who writes about health care in Providence, R.I.