During the holiday season, many of us feel pressure to find our loved ones the "perfect" gift. Why? Because gift-giving has long been considered a prime way to express love. However, recent research suggests that gestures don't need to be large or have a hefty price tag to feel meaningful.
The study, published this summer in The Journal of Social and Personal Relationships, suggests that small acts of kindness, not grand overtures, make people feel most loved and supported.
"Our research found that micro-moments of positivity, like a kind word, cuddling with a child, or receiving compassion make people feel most loved," says Dr. Zita Oravecz, a professor in human development and family studies at Pennsylvania State University and one of the study's researchers.
In the study, 495 men and women between the ages of 18 and 93 completed a questionnaire evaluating 60 possible ways that people can feel love. Each question began with, "Most people feel loved when..." The scenarios included situations like spending time with friends, receiving gifts, and spending time in nature. The survey also included negative interactions, like being controlled and criticized by others.
Oravecz says the findings highlight the psychological benefits that intimate relationships can offer. In fact, study participants ranked human interaction as a more significant expression of love than receiving material items, like presents. Connecting with others was also rated more highly than getting positive feedback on the internet, indicating that people derive the most support from personal human contact. In fact, other studies suggest more time on social media leads to increased feelings of isolation.
Yet despite the findings that spending time with friends and family makes us feel good, during hectic times like the holidays, these social interactions can feel burdensome instead of fulfilling. Fatigued from an overload of shopping, spending, and travel, most Americans describe this time of year as stressful instead of magical. In fact, a telephone survey conducted by the American Psychological Association showed that compared to other times of the year, 44 percent of women and 31 percent of men (out of 786 individuals polled) feel more stress during the holidays. In addition, 51 percent of women and 42 percent of men said purchasing and giving gifts added to their distress.
Any kind of stress can strain relationships and cause us to withdraw from others, but small stressors can be just as trying as larger burdens. A 2015 research study found that daily hassles like working, running errands, and money troubles negatively impact romantic unions, causing people to feel less satisfied and more alone in their relationships. When we're anxious and fatigued, it can also be more challenging to see someone else's point of view, which might explain why family feuds seem more likely to arise during the holidays.
While prioritizing one's self-care during the months of November and December may be difficult, adopting a mindset of being present in the moment may help lessen the stress of the season.
"During the holidays, anxiety rises, making it harder to remain present with ourselves and others. However, the power of spending time with another person is a gift we can give at any moment," says Dr. Carla Naumburg, a mindfulness coach and social worker in Newton, Mass.
While we may associate presence with mindfulness meditation, we don't need to be Zen masters to create a calmer holiday.
Naumburg says we can cultivate presence by cutting back on social media (which helps limit distractions), getting plenty of rest, and taking a pause (and remembering to breathe).
"For everyone, breathing is a small but powerful act that can keep us connected to ourselves by shifting our awareness to the present moment," she says.
According to The American Institute of Stress, focused breathing elicits the body's "relaxation response," slowing one's heart rate, lowering blood pressure, and helping muscles relax. This physical process aids in repairing an overactive nervous system, helping us to enter a calmer physical and emotional state.
Although it can be challenging to forgo doing extra errands during the holidays, Naumburg suggests balancing party planning and online shopping with moments of human connection. Activities like reading to a child, meeting a friend for a walk, or taking a moment to call a family member, are ways to express love and care and can keep us emotionally grounded.
While the idea of offering loved ones the gift of our time may pale in comparison to giving them a lavish present, recent empathy research shows shared human experiences can tighten social bonds. Oravecz and her colleagues also found that despite personality differences, most people agree on what makes us feel loved — the presence of our loved ones.
Juli Fraga is a psychologist and writer in San Francisco. You can find her on Twitter @dr_fraga.