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.
Why Social Eating Makes Us Closer
To better understand why, Dr. Dunbar presented a list of endorphin triggers — alcohol, laughter, singing, dancing and storytelling, plus chocolate (as a stand-in for food) — and asked respondents which elements they felt had the greatest impact. The factors that overwhelmingly contributed to their sense of bonding were laughter, stories and alcohol. Chocolate (representing food) contributed to closeness in only 10 percent of meals.
Dr. Dunbar theorizes that our brains explain the rankings. Alcohol, he said, “seems to be one of the best triggers humans have ever found of the endorphin system.” Laughter is infectious and activates that same response. And while food may be less central than expected, feelings of satiation also make us happy.
O.K., you might be thinking, then why not just mix up a G&T, turn on a comedy special and order in? Because, Dr. Dunbar says, human contact and simultaneous engagement matter. “The synchrony of behavior ramps the endorphin effect up massively, which is why laughter works,” he said. “It is a highly, highly synchronized behavior — much more so than we realize.” Food and alcohol, he said, “probably lift you onto a platform, but the behavioral synchrony from conversation or singing or whatever you care to do lifts it into a completely higher plane.”
How to Connect People the Right Way
So how, exactly, do we reach this higher ground? Priya Parker, author of “The Art of Gathering: How We Meet and Why It Matters,” suggests spending less time focused on décor or going through the motions of what we think a gathering should look like and more time thinking about what undergirds connection.
Start, she said, with a question about intention: “What does this family, company or group of friends need this year on this occasion of getting together?” That answer will become a touchstone and reveal how the event should be structured. Then ask some of your invitees how they want the gathering to feel or be about, and then keep going. “If they say: ‘What do you mean? It’s a tradition,’ then ask: ‘Why is this a tradition? And is it one we want to keep?’” If traditions need tweaking (not all do), you’ve now created the optimal conditions for change.
These open-ended questions foster engagement where there might have been stagnation; inclusivity instead of routine. “So, for example, if the purpose this year is generosity, invite everybody,” Ms. Parker said. “Bring somebody who doesn’t have a place to celebrate into your Thanksgiving this year. And then meaningfully connect them in the room.”
That connection is what Ms. Parker calls an “opening” and is where she suggests we spend a “disproportionate amount” of thought. “If you’re the host, how do you create meaning in those first few moments?” she said. “You go stand by the door and give your guests a hug. You get them a drink. But, at some point, ding your glass and let everybody know: ‘Hey, you belong here. It’s not an accident that you’re here.’”
Ms. Parker is a group facilitator with a background in conflict resolution; she understands that coming together isn’t always easy — especially when it involves those we love. “Families are diverse, complex and ever-changing, and as with every other group, needs aren’t static,” she said. “They change over time.”
It’s important to understand what the family needs most this year, taking into account recent events and losses. “If it’s the first year after Grandpa passed away, do we want to still do the same tradition?” she said. “Or, if it’s been a really tough year for a number of people in the family, maybe the deepest need is just to be together and have joy and ban politics. Or, if by not talking about certain things, we’ve created larger distance in the family, the deepest need might be to have meaningful conversations.”
Those moments of connection aren’t limited to the table. They might happen while cooking or on a run to the grocery store — a perfect time, Ms. Parker said, to connect people who don’t always get to spend time together. “Each of these acts and activities are an excuse to think about how we begin to stitch or restitch the family or group of friends or whomever together.”
Open Up, and Others Will, Too
Alice Julier, a sociologist and author of “Eating Together: Food, Friendship, and Inequality,” explains that connecting across the table can help us shift our perceptions about the world around us. “Family meals are where people get bonded together and learn the rules of life,” she said.
But when we dine with people outside of our family, she said, something extraordinary can happen: “Eating together, particularly when the labor of preparing the meal is shared, puts people on more equal footing. Shared meals have the potential to connect people across lines of difference.”
The most important elements of communing resonate with Dr. Dunbar’s findings. While you’re having fun preparing food and eating, open up to your guests — and ask them to do the same.
“Share your stories. Share experiences over opinions,” Ms. Parker said. “For Thanksgiving, for example, another way you could ask, ‘What are you thankful for?’ is to say, ‘Tell us a story — an experience from this year that no one around the table has heard before — and how it relates to your understanding of gratitude, of community, of harvest.’”
For those who still feel the pull of a table for one, Ms. Parker suggests reconsidering. Some of the most successful gatherers, she said, are those who identify as having social anxiety and not enjoying groups. “Part of the reason they’re so powerful and good at gathering is because they’re creating the events they wish they could attend,” she said.
The need for connection, Dr. Julier says, is “part of humanness.” There’s a tension, she said, “between the real need for ritual and a real desire to be in my pajamas with my dog and cat. But my sense is that we need both right now. The idea of being social is work. It’s a type of labor we have to do as humans. But the great thing is, it has its rewards.”
Simran Sethi is a journalist focused on food, science and culture. Her work has appeared in The Washington Post, The Guardian and Smithsonian Magazine. You can follow her on Instagram or Twitter @simransethi.