The holiday season is typically associated with gatherings of friends and family, cooking traditional favorites, and last-minute gift shopping. In short, it’s a busy time that can be as joyful as it may be stressful. However, for many, the holidays can be a time of loneliness and isolation, whether physical or emotional, making it a challenging time of the year.
While less discussed than the more cheerful aspects of the holidays, loneliness may be more prevalent during these months than you realize. In a 2017 AARP Foundation survey of 1,005 adults 18 and older, 31 percent reported feeling lonely during the holiday season within the previous five years while 41 percent indicated they had worried about a friend or family member feeling lonely.
Surprisingly, a separate study found millennials, ages 25–34, were more likely to report feeling lonely than adults over the age of 65 during the holidays. In a study of 2,037 participants, conducted by the U.K. mental health organization, Mind, 10 percent of millennials reported not having anyone to spend the holidays with compared to 5 percent of adults 65 and older.
Experienced by both the young and old, the causes of loneliness this time of the year vary and may be brought on by a variety of reasons.
1. Missing loved ones: Whether it’s a friend you no longer speak to or a family member who has passed on, the holidays may remind you of those you miss the most.
2. Feeling social pressure: Advertisements and postings on social media often portray only the best aspects of life—particularly when it comes to holiday social gatherings. (Think friends and family lovingly intermingling.) Loneliness may be exacerbated by these images of holiday perfection that are often hard to escape. (Remember, what they don’t show are cooking mishaps, disagreements, and other stressful moments).
3. Memories of past holidays: Unpleasant memories of past holiday seasons may come into sharp focus during the holidays. Or you may have pleasant memories of people, events, or traditions. Memories of what used to be can trigger feelings of sadness and loneliness.
Fortunately, there are many ways to combat loneliness this holiday season and to make the holiday less lonely for others as well.
1. Consider Celebrating the Holidays Differently
If the holiday traditions you engage in year after year are fueling your loneliness, it may be time to celebrate in a different way. Perhaps you’re yearning to make new connections or to immerse yourself in a new experience. Only you know what you need to do to reconnect to the world around you.
Creating new traditions may be the perfect way to combat loneliness, whether that means taking a trip or spending the holidays with a different crew of people. Isolation can look different for everyone as can ways to overcome it. Remember to let go of any ideas as to what the holidays should be and do what best serves you this season.
2. Deepen a Connection
A great way to connect with others is to deepen the connections you already have. It might be with someone you were once close to and drifted apart from or someone you recently met who you’d like to get to know better. It could be a coworker or a family member. Just remember to keep expectations realistic. You’re better off deepening a connection with someone who is in a place to do so than someone who is closed off or just not ready to open themselves up.
Open the door for a deeper connection by extending an invitation to meet them in person. Think of activities and common interests that would allow for a deeper connection.
Note: Keep in mind that when you’re making plans to get together with someone, it is more likely to happen if you invite them to do something specific at a designated time and date versus making a broad statement such as, “Let’s get together sometime.”
3. Use Social Media to Your Advantage
Social media can be a great platform for establishing connections. Reach out to a friend you’d like to catch up with or start a Meetup group with others who share similar interests. Try to limit your social media activity or messaging to setting up in-person connections. If you’re already feeling lonely, mindlessly scrolling through photos of people sharing their holidays with others is likely to make you feel worse. Remember, people don’t share their entire reality on social media—just the good stuff.
4. Put Yourself in a Social Setting
If you’re seeking a connection, you’re more likely to find one in a social setting versus at home alone. Seek out settings where a conversation with strangers is likely to unfold organically such as a coffee shop or a bookstore. If that feels too uncomfortable, go somewhere you can feel surrounded by others such as a grocery store or shopping mall. Make small talk with the cashier or simply make eye contact and wish them a happy holiday. (A little eye contact can go a long way.)
5. Be Kind to Yourself and Focus on Self-care
You are most in need of self-compassion and self-care when you’re feeling fragile and vulnerable. Whether you’re physically isolated or feeling emotionally disconnected, loneliness can be an unpleasant experience. Keep in mind that everyone feels that way at one time or another, even during the holidays. Nurture your body and mind—you deserve it!
Practice yoga, meditate, take a warm bath, watch your favorite show, or engage in any other activity that brings you peace. Take advantage of the solitude so that when it’s time to reconnect with the world around you, you’ll be ready.
3 Ways to Make Others Feel Less Lonely
1. Add an extra seat at the table or drop in: Young or old, think of someone who may be feeling isolated. It could be a neighbor who lives alone or a friend who has a lot on his or her plate. Remember, social isolation isn’t just physical. Feeling disconnected can also result from high levels of stress or prolonged sadness. Think of people in need of connection and invite them to a holiday festivity or simply out for coffee. Even a simple drop in can make a big difference. The key is to show you’re thinking of them.
2. Make eye contact and smile: Think of how many people you pass without even noticing. With all the people you come into contact with at the grocery store or while gift shopping, it’s likely that one of them is feeling lonely amid all the hustle and bustle. Smiling or making a little eye contact can go a long way, according to a 2012 study. Researchers found that making direct eye contact with strangers (as opposed to looking past them) instilled feelings of connectedness, whether or not it was also accompanied with a smile.
3. Volunteer: When you help others, you’re creating a connection that inevitably lessens feelings of loneliness on both ends. The holidays are a great time to give of yourself to those who are in most need of it. Homeless shelters, soup kitchens, hospitals, churches, and retirement homes are great places to connect with others. Research local opportunities and inquire about ways to volunteer. A gesture as simply as sitting with someone who is feeling isolated this holiday season can have a powerful effect.
Be proactive this holiday season to combat loneliness or to help others do the same. Map out a plan before you find yourself feeling fully disconnected and isolated. By anticipating feelings of loneliness—either your own or of someone else (even a stranger)—you’ll be better equipped to face them.
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