Is it the hope of getting presents? No. We receive presents at different times of the year, but it doesn't cause us to be nicer to people.
Is it getting awesome deals during black Friday? Definitely not. One shopper pepper sprayed another on her way to a deal this year.
Do the music and decorations remind us of past pleasure moments and so compel us to happiness? No. Squawks of protest at the trees in Wal-mart on November 1st tell us year-round decorations and music wouldn't save the world, and we are more than happy to take these things down in January.
This is a good question to resolve. In conversations with friends, I've often heard that the world would be a better place if we could just keep the "holiday spirit" all year around. This is true... but how do we do this? The secret to being able to maintain this sort of positive response to life would rely heavily on pinpointing its cause.
Wise men and women throughout the ages have already provided the answer to this question - we don't need to reinvent the wheel, we just need to use those which were already painstakingly created. The key is noticing that the feelings of contentment and goodwill are not created externally. They are not the result of being the effect of positive things, but rather, causing them.
During the holiday season, when we take our inspiration from the great religious leaders of the past and do charity for others or treat them with kindness, we feel happier because it are these actions of caring and charity that create happiness - not just for other people, but for ourselves. However, if we believe that our happiness was the result of the trees now wilted and the snow which has turned to slush, our "holiday spirit" will fade, along with the faded tinsel and trees.
Listen to the words of George Eliot. "It is only a poor sort of happiness that could ever come by caring very much about our own narrow pleasures. We can only have the highest happiness such as goes along with true greatness by having wide thoughts and much feeling for the rest of the world as well as ourselves. This special sort of happiness often brings so much pain with it that we can only tell it from pain by its being what we would choose above everything else, because our souls see that it is good."
As human beings, it is our privilege to be allowed to help others. When we omit these actions and concentrate only on "helping ourselves," we actually abandon the only activities which would create our own happiness. The holidays give us an opportunity to remember one again and to practice the true route to happiness.