The holidays bring relationships to the forefront of our collective awareness. While America is usually known for its individualistic virtues (i.e., freedom of expression, independence), this the time of year when we all focus a bit more on family, friends, and acts of kindness or altruism.
Everywhere we look, we find advertisements that emphasize the sweetness of human relationships in their branding, messaging that depicts the “average” American in a perfectly copacetic and joyful gathering with beautiful loved ones. Albeit highly idealistic, it is a great reminder that we all need relationships and social connections, and these social bonds can be a source of comfort and joy.
The problem with all of these idealistic depictions of relationships is that the research finds a growing crisis in America: we are becoming a lonelier nation. Some health experts have even deemed the problem of loneliness as a health epidemic, because it is so commonly experienced (particularly as we get older) and has been linked with some dire health consequences. Loneliness and isolation are linked with earlier mortality, as well as increased risk of stroke and progression of Alzheimer’s [1-4]. Loneliness affects the health of your heart ; this research suggests a tangible understanding of what we colloquially refer to as a “broken-heart.”
These days it is harder and harder to make friends, especially as adults. Our lives are increasingly busy. Even our “downtime” is full of stimulation. We might not even have time to attend to the relationships we already have, much less go out and find new ones. But the sobering reality about loneliness and isolation speak to the importance of making space and making an effort to cultivate and tend to our social networks. Experiencing deep connection with others can have some strong biochemical effects on the body: releasing oxytocin (aka the “love” hormone) and improving “vagal tone,” or the quality of mind/body connection and the ability to self-regulate .
So how can you get a dose of social connection this season? Find the following suggestions below.
· Smile at strangers. Simple. We often move through our daily lives unwittingly sending a message to those around us that we are closed off. We stare at our phones in waiting rooms and elevators, we rush through stores when we do our errands, or we listen to headphones at the gym. Make yourself available to give and receive a warm exchange, a smile, a kind gesture, a gentle look acknowledging the presence of another. This is what the researcher Barb Frederickson calls a “positivity resonance” or a “micro-moment” of love.
· Show up. We are all so busy and it can be hard to say “yes” to every invitation we get. Sometimes saying “no, thank you” to an invitation for an event is a really healthy choice to make for the sake of sanity and well-being. But, it’s a balance. We must also make an effort to show up for the people and events that matter. Clear space on your calendar for a coffee or lunch with a friend. Take vacation time to be there for a dear friend’s wedding, baby shower, birthday, or retirement party.
· Venture beyond your bubble. Our brains are wired to create categories. We often meet someone right away and we can determine if they are a “similar other” (someone who looks like us, thinks like us, enjoys the same activities that we do). But this quick judgment might mean that we miss opportunities for friendships in unlikely places. If you feel a sense of ease and joy interacting with someone who doesn’t look like anyone you’ve ever befriended, it might be worth investing a little time and energy to building a new friendship. Try making friends with someone who is older or younger than you, as multigenerational relationships can be deeply enriching connections to experience. Try making friends with someone on the other end of the political spectrum as you. We all have so much to teach and learn from each other. It pays to make friends in unexpected places, as often the most meaningful friendships are those that introduce us to an entirely unique perspective.
· Be present. It’s simple to understand, but increasingly hard to remember. When you are with others, offer your full presence. Make eye contact. Listen deeply. Put away your phone. Take a break from your own mental chatter and the business of the world. Enjoy the company and presence of your companion to the fullest extent possible.
· Focus on what you have in common. It's really easy these days to notice our differences. The Internet creates special pockets for interactions, based on our beliefs and specialized cultural niches. But in the real world, we are required to interact and share space with people who are noticeably different from us. Why not try to find some common ground? Regardless of all the differences in how we identify ourselves, there are some core human characteristics we all share. We all want to be safe and free of suffering. We all want happiness and freedom. We all make mistakes. We all have a basic need for love and kindness.
· Loving kindness for everyone. Sometimes, the holidays ironically present a challenge to feeling warm fuzzies for everyone. We might experience frustration in crowded spaces, busy parking lots or long lines. For those that participate in the “Black Friday” shopping mayhem, they are subject to a very real shift in biology that is sparked by competition for limited resources, similar to what happens when we experience the “fight or flight” response. But when we sense that we have reached the edge of compassion, this is actually the most important time to attempt to practice loving kindness.
Next time you are in the presence of strangers at a crowded place, try to empathetically shift your attention towards them and notice something sweet and unique about them. Send a silent wish for their well-being.
“May you be happy. May you be at ease.”
Your own emotions will shift. By recognizing those around you as fellow members of the human tribe, you will likely feel less competition and more connection to others.
1. Luo, Y., Hawkley, L. C., Waite, L. J., & Cacioppo, J. T. (2012). Loneliness, health, and mortality in old age: a national longitudinal study. Social Science & Medicine, 74(6), 907-914.
2. Gerst-Emerson, K., & Jayawardhana, J. (2015). Loneliness as a public health issue: the impact of loneliness on health care utilization among older adults. American Journal of Public Health, 105(5), 1013-1019.
3. Shankar, A., McMunn, A., Banks, J., & Steptoe, A. (2011). Loneliness, social isolation, and behavioral and biological health indicators in older adults. Health Psychology, 30(4), 377-385.
4. Wilson, R. S., Krueger, K. R., Arnold, S. E., Schneider, J. A., Kelly, J. F., Barnes, L. L., Tang, Y., & Bennett, D. A. (2007). Loneliness and risk of Alzheimer disease. Archives of General Psychiatry, 64(2), 234-240.
5. Cacioppo, J. T., Hawkley, L. C., Crawford, L. E., Ernst, J. M., Burleson, M. H., Kowalewski, R. B., Malarkey, W.B., Van Cauter, E. & Berntson, G. G. (2002). Loneliness and health: Potential mechanisms. Psychosomatic Medicine, 64(3), 407-417.
6. Fredrickson, B. L. (2013). Love 2.0: How our supreme emotion affects everything we feel, think, do, and become. New York: Hudson Street Press.