We squeezed into the back seat and buckled our seatbelts, our breath making little clouds in the chilly air. The driver cranked up the Christmas music as our fleet of cars pulled out of the long, winding driveway toward our next destination.
I was 16 and Christmas caroling with the church youth group. It was a yearly tradition. None of us had phones (this was the 90s), and I can still feel the soft squish of puffy coats colliding as we crammed into every seat. I can hear the raucous laughter and outlandish conversation. We would giggle as we played “corners” on the tight curves of winding country roads, switching vehicles and seats after each stop to socialize with new people.
Although our purpose was to serve widows and shut-ins (who rewarded our effort with Christmas cookies and cups of cocoa), the tradition offered us something else very precious — a sense of connection. The camaraderie we felt as we completed a mission together was a true gift. The yearly event helped a group of insecure teens — at least for an evening — belong.
I think many of us have fond memories from years past of traditions like this. But as I’ve grown older, these relational opportunities and good feelings have been harder to come by. While our world has become more and more “connected” through technology, more than half of Americans report being lonely. As a single, I always felt most lonely around Christmas.
Social media, streaming TV, gaming and texting may make us feel like we’re part of something, but these practices can actually isolate us from real-world relationships with family members and friends. As you head into the holidays, here are four ways to experience greater connection this Christmas.
1. Spend time with friends.
Many of my best holiday memories involve friends —watching holiday movies together, gathering for a special meal, or dressing up and attending a fancy holiday event.
I’ll admit, as my single years wore on, these get-togethers lost some of their luster. I wondered if my time was better spent on my couch, binge-watching Hallmark movies. (My relationship status may have changed since then, but I still feel this way sometimes!) What I found, though, was showing up always provided a blessing for me and the people I spent time with. Research shows that solid friendships are one of the strongest predictors of happiness. Cultivating these friendships requires effort, but the payoff is worth it.
Some of you may be thinking: That sounds nice, if I had friends. As an introvert, I feel you. If you’re low on friends, get out of your comfort zone and meet someone new. Strike up a conversation with a neighbor, attend an event at your church, reconnect with an old friend, volunteer. God designed us to need people. And holidays are happier when we spend time with others.
2. Ditch the phone.
At our last family get-together, my dad took a funny (but maybe not so funny) picture of my siblings and I in the living room. All four of us were sitting on couches, looking at our phones. We were in close proximity but all in our own little worlds.
Looking at smart phones can become a disruptive habit. Our brains become conditioned to the stimulation provided by scrolling through social media, checking email or playing games. But as my dad’s picture demonstrates, phones can become a real-life social problem. Instead of experiencing actual connection, my siblings and I were isolated while sitting mere inches apart.
According to a post on the Harvard Health Blog:
The latest research suggests that limiting social media use to 30 minutes a day “may lead to significant improvement in well-being,” according to a widely publicized University of Pennsylvania study published in the December 2018 issue of the Journal of Social and Clinical Psychology. Working with 143 undergraduates, researchers found that students who limited their use of Facebook, Instagram, and Snapchat to 30 minutes a day for three weeks had significant reductions in loneliness and depression as compared to a control group that made no changes to their social media diet.
College students aren’t the only ones to feel isolated by too much social media use. Many of us use these apps as a substitute for real, in-person human connection, which has been proven to increase feelings of loneliness and inadequacy. (Real relationships do the opposite.)
Why not use the month of a December to stick to the 30 minutes a day (or less) rule when it comes to social media? Use the time saved to nurture real-time relationships by having coffee with a friend, being social with coworkers or striking up a conversation with a stranger.
3. Start a tradition.
Something that has made me feel connected to others throughout my life is keeping and sharing traditions. While you can foster traditions any time of the year, the holidays provide unique opportunities to start something new. Host a Christmas brunch. Invite friends to join you for a holiday bike ride or 5K. Go look at Christmas lights together. Serve at your church’s Christmas Eve service or volunteer together at a soup kitchen.
Traditions don’t have to be fancy. When I was in my 20s, some friends and I met at a restaurant each Christmas season. In our own twist on Secret Santa, we would draw names and give the person whose name we drew a gift that doubled as an encouragement. One year, I received a dollar-store figurine of a pointer dog, signifying that I was a loyal friend and noting my quirky habit of pointing at people when they said something funny. Another year, a friend gave me a plant, expressing that she had seen a lot of growth in me that year. This simple tradition allowed me to feel known and loved by my friends.
Just as my high school caroling tradition provided a bright spot each year, being intentional about connecting with people through repeated rituals can offer a valuable sense of camaraderie and belonging.
4. Be present.
A few weeks ago, I enjoyed watching “A Beautiful Day in the Neighborhood,” a movie about the beloved children’s TV personality Mister Rogers. Something that stood out to me about the TV icon was how present he was. Paul Asay puts it this way in his review: “For Mister Rogers, people aren’t things to be squeezed into the day’s calendar: They’re to be treated as the precious, sacred treasures they are.”
The film reminded me of people in my life who had treated me this way and made a lasting impression. Watching how Fred Rogers treated people convicted me. So often I rush through interactions or fail to give people my full attention. This season, whether I’m visiting with my family or speaking to a store cashier, I want to be more like Mr. Rogers by being fully present.
Be of good cheer
All of these suggestions have one important thing in common: people. In a world where Christmas movies play 24-7 and you can check in on friends virtually, socializing from the comfort of your couch is a real temptation.
But Hebrews 10:24-25 offers this exhortation: “And let us consider how to stir up one another to love and good works, not neglecting to meet together, as is the habit of some, but encouraging one another, and all the more as you see the Day drawing near.”
What better time to meet together and offer encouragement than during the season that celebrates Jesus coming to earth to be Immanuel, God with us? This year let’s consider how we might bless others through our presence. Put down the phone, step away from the comfortable, and create space for the gift of connection.
Copyright 2019 Suzanne Hadley Gosselin. All rights reserved.