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Two women wearing festive outfits and chatting
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After two years of disruption to plans over the Festive Season due to COVID-19, a new poll suggests spending time with loved ones is the aspect of the holidays that British people are most excited about this year. Having meaningful relationships and connections with others has vital benefits for our mental and even physical health all year round and these might be particularly important during the winter months.

However, daily life can create barriers to connecting with other people, for example if we are worried about being judged or are too busy to take time to be sociable. These barriers risk causing loneliness and isolation, a growing issue particularly for older people. Can the norms and traditions associated with the festive season help overcome some of the barriers and encourage us to connect?

Can the norms and traditions associated with the festive season help overcome some of the barriers and encourage us to connect?

Dr Jo Cutler, School of Psychology

See you next year!

Saying someone is “off the Christmas card list” is a common phrase to say you won’t talk to someone ever again. Although this phrase is often used jokingly, it suggests sending someone a card or getting in touch with them at Christmas might be the one remaining point of contact each year.

Similarly, events around Christmas at work or with family and friends might be the only time you see someone each year. This social norm, that it is ok to connect with people you haven’t spoken to in a long time, can be used to maintain relationships that would otherwise end altogether and could even be a starting point for more regular communication the following year. Because the festive season falls at the end of the calendar year, this may also feel like a deadline to reflect on what we wanted to do during the year.

Research shows having deadlines can help motivate us to invest effort, like organising a social event, to achieve a rewarding goal such as reconnecting with friends.

It’s the thought that counts

One of the key ways we can connect with others and build relationships is through kind acts, and Christmas is certainly associated with generosity. However, results of the Kindness Test, a huge study by BBC Radio 4, found the most common reason for not being kind was a fear of the kind act being misinterpreted. For example, the Christmas advert for one online retailer shows a new mother appreciating a gift sent to her by another new parent. The giver could have held back from sending the gift, concerned that it would be misinterpreted as suggesting the recipient was not coping.. But at Christmas, the widespread traditions of generosity might help overcome these fears and provide confidence that a well-intentioned present or message will be appreciated, not misinterpreted.

Breaking the ice

The fear of being judged or misinterpreted can also be a barrier to simply talking to other people, particularly strangers. But research shows that conversations with strangers or new people are often more enjoyable than people expect and associated with happiness and wellbeing.

We can maximise the chances of having a deeper and more positive conversation with someone new by asking open ended questions, prompting longer and more detailed answers. Asking questions around the winter break (“how are you spending the holidays?”) linking these to personal aspects such as family traditions can improve our conversations. Noticing these positive interactions can remind us it is enjoyable to chat to new people, as well as those we already know.

The season for giving

While starting conversations or sending cards and gifts are all ways we can connect with people we know or meet, the festive period can also help us to feel connected with communities or people who are much further away. Many charities run Christmas appeals and data on donations show an increase in the number of people who give in November and December (although the increase in spending on alcohol during the festive period is much larger).

Some charities also sell gifts, ranging from ethical products that support their cause to donations in the form of an item for the charity, such as a goat or toilet. Selecting one of these donation gifts so it is also meaningful for the person you are giving it to, for example school books for your friend who loves reading, is one way to maximise the positive impact of the gift for the recipient as well as the charity. Charities’ ability to sell these gifts also relies on people volunteering in their shops while others are doing their Christmas shopping. Support for particular causes, including homelessness, show the biggest increases in December and many charities or shelters working in this area have opportunities for volunteering.

Older people who are particularly likely to face loneliness at Christmas are also generally more willing to help others, particularly those in their country or community so opportunities to volunteer and connect with others could be very significant.