For many of us, especially those without family nearby, spending time with friends can be a meaningful way to celebrate the holidays. As fewer people opt for marriage, friendships have become more than social relationships: Friends are proxy families, and they may be better than the real ones.
Researchers have found that these personal connections may be more beneficial to one’s health and well-being than family relationships. And at a time when loneliness has become a public health crisis with young adults saying they feel lonelier than older generations, studies show that investing in friendships pays off. According to the Mayo Clinic, these bonds can help reduce stress, increase happiness and bolster self-confidence.
With hectic schedules, finding time to nurture these relationships can be challenging. But the holidays provide an opportunity to renew these bonds, giving us a chance to deepen what friendship expert Shasta Nelson calls Frientimacy: the intimacy between friends where both people feel acknowledged in a safe and satisfying way.
“Three requirements for healthy friendships are positivity, consistency and vulnerability,” Nelson said.
A few intentional behaviors can help give these relationships a boost.
Many people feel pressured to buy loved ones the most ideal gifts, which can cause more angst than joy. A survey conducted by the American Psychological Association found that 27 percent of Americans often feel stressed about money during the holidays, while 47 percent occasionally feel obligated to buy the perfect presents.
With that in mind, consider giving friends nonmaterial gifts, like acts of kindness. Even small gestures can make a difference. Nelson suggests leaving a heartfelt voice mail, making plans to spend quality time together or attending a friend’s holiday event, like their child’s winter recital.
Studies reveal that these generous acts can increase joy and emotional well-being. Acts of kindness have also been shown to produce oxytocin, the hormone responsible for cultivating attachment and social bonds.
“Showing up tells friends that we’re thinking of them and adds positivity to their lives, making them feel loved,” Nelson said.
The holiday season also can be an opportunity to foster closeness with a newer friend. But stretching beyond our more intimate social cohorts can feel uncomfortable. If we’ve invited a new acquaintance to socialize, and they haven’t responded, we may assume that they’ve written us off. But unlike dating relationships, this behavior isn’t an indication that the burgeoning friendship may be doomed.
“Friends may hesitate to contact each other because they believe that initiation needs to be 50/50. This is rarely the case,” Nelson said.
Take advantage of the season by making plans to shop together, watch a holiday movie or grab a cup of tea. These activities can also be meaningful to friends going through tough times because of an illness, divorce or other kinds of loss.
Empathy researcher and social worker Kelsey Crowe said, “Friends going through a tough time often need extra support during the holiday season. The best gift you can provide is empathy. Spending time together, paying attention and listening are ways to show compassion.”
At times, conflict is unavoidable, even with close friends. If you get into a dispute over hot-button topics such as politics during your holiday dinner, respectfully express how you feel, and then let it go — at least for a moment.
Emotionally charged topics can cause us to lose our cool. But taking a defensive stance widens the distance between friends.
“Accept that you will not win the argument or change anyone’s mind,” said relationship expert Venus Nicolino, adding, “You have to ask yourself, ‘Do you want to be happy, or do you want to be right?’ ”
Instead of trying to alter your friend’s viewpoint, share your feelings by saying something like, “I feel sad that we’re arguing, instead of respecting our differences.” Studies on conflict resolution suggest that expressing one’s feelings in this way can help distill tension between friends.
Once you’ve cleared the air, find a way to reconnect. You might redirect the conversation by discussing a shared interest, reminiscing about happy holiday memories or talking about upcoming plans.
“The holidays can bring unwanted stress, but disagreements can be an opportunity to turn conflict into connection,” Nicolino said.
While the holidays bring loved ones together, not everyone feels joyful during the season. “The holidays can leave us feeling lonely, especially if we compare our lives to the romanticized ideal of a vibrant social circle with lots of parties and friends,” Nelson said.
Furthermore, feelings of sadness and disappointment may arise if dear friends live far away. But even if distance makes it tricky to see each other, old-fashioned letter writing can be one way to reconnect.
“Digitally created holiday cards may be cute, but they hardly feel special. Instead of seeing curated photos, friends want to hear about your personal experiences,” Crowe said.
When penning your letter, get personal and specific. Tell your friend how much they’re missed. If a certain holiday song or movie reminds you of them, mention that, too.
“Being vulnerable in this way can encourage Frientimacy, even with friends we don’t see regularly,” Nelson said.
And when catching up with friends, Nelson recommends transforming these conversations into something more intimate by asking intentional questions.
“Instead of updating friends on your holiday plans, ask thoughtful questions like, ‘What was a holiday tradition in your family when you were growing up’ or ‘As a child, what was your most memorable holiday gift?’ ”
Open-ended questions such as these show that we’re curious about our friends’ lives and can help transform chitchat into deeper dialogues.
Whether you’d like to connect with an old friend or forge a new friendship, take the time during the holidays to foster these intimate relationships that provide health benefits throughout the year.
Juli Fraga is a psychologist and freelance writer. You can find her on Twitter @dr_fraga.