December into January is a favorite time of the year for many people. It’s the time that many go “home” for the holidays, to be with families and friends. Millions take flights all over the world to be with families. Humans are sociable beings.
The holiday season, however, can be the hardest and most lonely time of the year for many. Relationships might exist in your life, but you don’t feel connected for various reasons. There might be family conflicts or loneliness stemming from mental illnesses like depression. Every homeless person we see on the streets comes from somewhere and probably was born happy.
Loneliness, for a long time, has been known to cause emotional or mental illness. Many recent studies show loneliness can also affect physical health such as increasing risk for cancer, heart disease, and hypertension. It’s important to recognize your feeling of loneliness during the holidays. Are you hoping or yearning for more connectedness? Do you feel sad that you are alone or feel lonely even in a crowd? U.S. Surgeon General Dr. Vivek Murthy is interviewed here about his book on the subject, “Together: The Healing Power of Human Connection in a Sometimes Lonely World.”
Fortunately, there are important strategies to improve your mood during the holidays. Make sure you have adequate sleep, with attention to your natural or “circadian” rhythms. Make sure you take time to exercise. You don’t need to belong to a gym. Taking a mindful walk in nature, for example, can lower your stress hormones and raise your “happy hormones’ such as dopamine or serotonin. Learn to practice mindfulness or meditate – the Headspace or Ten Percent Happier apps can be helpful. Yoga can also be beneficial, as Dr. Gupta described in a previous article. Do you have a history of depression? If so, be sure to keep in close contact with your therapist.
Do you have family members with whom you wish to connect? Depression, anxiety or loneliness can often cloud your judgment and perceptions, making it difficult for you to recognize that you are loved more than you think. Don’t hesitate to make a phone call or send an email to family members. Making an effort to join your family members even for a brief lunch or visit can boost your happiness during the holiday season.
If you are feeling happy and content but know of someone who may be lonely, reach out to him or her during the holidays. Do your elderly neighbors next door live alone? Invite them for coffee, bring them a cake or a holiday flower arrangement. A recent study from Amit Kumar at University of Texas and Nicholas Epley of the University of Chicago showed how often givers underestimate the impact of their random acts of kindness. It also showed how recipients of these acts of kindness often pay forward by extending the act of kindness to others. By reaching out to a lonely neighbor, you might boost his or her spirits for the entire holiday season.
Don’t live with the misery of loneliness. Take advantage of resources that can help lift you out of loneliness. One well-known initiative is Project UnLonely, launched in 2016 by the Foundation for Art and Healing, an organization found by Dr. Jeremy Nobel at Harvard. This initiative has raised awareness of the loneliness epidemic and has helped connect people to their communities through the arts.
In your community, you can start your own UnLonely project too. Our Lady Docs Corner Cafe network is an example of how a few relationships can sprout into a flourishing garden of friendships. As many of you know, I started a bootcamp group with just a few physician friends ten years ago. Now, more than 160 of us are on a google link, and to this day, we participate in many activities together, from community services, to monthly bookclub, Sunday walking group, Yoga and bootcamp group…
On January 8, thirty five of us will be together at a brunch, to listen to three physicians in our Lady Docs group giving talks on meditation, life coaching for healers, and how to incorporate lifestyle changes into our medical practice. The talks are so important to us, but most importantly, friends will be together for a few hours in a loving environment.
“Whatever affects one directly, affects all indirectly. I can never be what I ought to be until you are what you ought to be. This is the interrelated structure of reality.” – Martin Luther King Jr.