Eight of us lounged around the table, candlelight flickering on crumpled napkins and cracker crumbs. It was the tail end of our yearly holiday party for our neighbors, and our guests – ranging from 30-somethings to 60-somethings – seemed reluctant to leave. Nor did we want them to. Swapping stories and laughing together, though we barely know each other, seemed the most important thing we could do at that moment.
It makes sense. Humans are wired to want connection. Our neurobiology craves those moments. When we feel rejected or disconnected, we sense a threat akin to being stalked by a lion. Social connection is hugely important to our mental, emotional, and even physical health. When the United Kingdom created the position of Minister for Loneliness in 2018, the government cited evidence that loneliness can be as bad for health as obesity or smoking. More recent studies have shown we sleep better when we are with someone. In this country, we’re awash in studies about how pandemic isolation wreaked havoc on our health and our social organization.
During this holiday season we can use the science of our social nature to renew old connections and forge new ones. We’ve known for a long time that social ties to family and friends are good for us. We’re now learning that positive interaction with strangers is beneficial. Chatting with the person in line at the store makes us more happy and healthy, more connected to our community, more trustful and optimistic, and even mentally more astute.
It doesn’t need to be hard to reach out. Because we’re such social beings, we are wired to reciprocate behavior we experience. We tend to greet smiles with smiles. Others appreciate our small acts of kindness (a compliment, holding the door) more than we realize.
How can we use the holiday season to build connections?
· Scribble notes on our holiday cards in addition to the pre-printed story of the year’s events: jokes or questions about the recipient’s year. Extra points for sending cards to those who might not expect it.
· Pay for the coffee of someone in line behind us, gifting a stranger.
· Host low-lift potluck celebrations, even for just a few, and introduce guests by more than their name to ease conversation: “This is Judy, my college roommate, and she loves to cook.”
· When out shopping or enjoying holiday events, challenge ourselves to have a cheery interaction with at least one stranger – a joke, a smile, a shared complaint about the weather.
These acts of kindness and connection benefit not only the people involved. Studies show they also benefit those who simply see or hear about them. Even the smallest act of reaching out can be the most important thing we do today.
Melinda Burrell, PhD, syndicated by PeaceVoice, is a former humanitarian aid worker and now trains on the neuroscience of communication and conflict. She is vice-chair of the National Association for Community Mediation, which offers resources for community approaches to difficult issues.