Fall-into-winter: the time of year when we come together to light a candle, carve a bird, raise a glass. It’s a season that is cherished and dreaded often in equal measure. But while attending the company holiday party or fa-la-la-ing with family might seem like a chore, social scientists and other experts make a compelling case that there is strength in numbers: Gathering is good for our body and our spirit.
“Our social connections to others have powerful influences on health and longevity,” wrote Julianne Holt-Lunstad, a professor of psychology at Brigham Young University, in her 2018 assessment of studies on social relationships and physical health. Not only is social support a buffer against stress, she said, but the absence of connection qualifies as a risk factor for premature mortality — on par with the kinds of health risks associated with obesity.
The good news is that many paths lead to connection. Social support might mean sharing advice, listening or offering a hug during a stressful episode, making someone feel included in a social setting, or giving tangible support, like a ride or a meal. And the long-term benefits are significant: Dr. Holt-Lunstad’s earlier research shows that strong relationships can improve our longevity.
The holidays offer an expansive menu of opportunities to give and receive, these kinds of uplifting behaviors. Robin Dunbar, emeritus professor of evolutionary psychology at the University of Oxford, says mealtimes, in particular, are a great example. “They help us build community, and create or strengthen relationships with family and friends,” he said.
Plus, social eating releases endorphins, neurotransmitters that interact with the opiate receptors in our brains and provide a sense of bonding and feelings of well-being. But one unexpected finding of Dr. Dunbar’s research is that the importance of these gatherings is less about the food and more about what — and who — surrounds it.