Why Do Some Feel Alone on the Holidays?


Holidays are a time for enjoying, celebrating, and relaxing, but for some of us they can also bring feelings of sadness and loneliness.

To remedy this, Brandon Stanton, the photographer behind the popular blog Humans of New York (HONY) and author of best-selling book by the same name, recently announced a new annual program that pairs people looking for a place to go for the holidays with hosts who have an extra spot at their table.

“As someone who moved to this city without knowing anybody,” Stanton says, “I know the holidays are the ABSOLUTE WORST. I think I spent my first Christmas Eve in New York at a 24 hour diner.”

But Stanton can’t solve every holiday woe. Whether or not we have a place to go for the holidays, they can still bring out feelings of loneliness and even depression in many of us – one in four Americans report experiencing loneliness during the holiday season. During this time associated with joy and happiness, why do so many of us feel lonely and even depressed? Unrealistic media depictions, memories of past holidays, and even social media play a role:

Media: On television, in movies, and in magazines, holidays are portrayed as a time to be surrounded by friends and family. Yet these picture-perfect depictions can lead to unrealistic expectations. People who may not have a traditional family, are away from friends and family on the holidays, or simply lead a more solitary lifestyle are inevitably disappointed when they compare their holidays to the seemingly perfect media representations. Remind yourself that the families in TV and movies aren’t real. Nobody has a perfect family.

Past holidays: The holiday season can be a time of reflection, evoking memories of previous holidays. Those who have had imperfect, stressful, or even traumatic holidays in the past may be affected by these memories. Conversely, others who have happy memories of holidays may compare their present holiday celebrations and become dissatisfied with their current situations. Try to stay in the moment by asking yourself, “what can I enjoy about today?” A song? The snow? Whatever you can do to refocus on the present moment can help you in these moments of looking towards the past.

Loss: In the spirit of refection, people might be reminded of family members who were present at previous holiday gatherings and are no longer with them, bringing feelings of sadness and grief.  Trust yourself to find the right way to share your grief. For some, it’s talking about it with others who understand. For others it’s having a quiet personal tribute. Try different ways to try to honor your loved one during the holidays so that you can find the right way for you.

Social media: Pictures of perfect-looking celebrations from family, friends, and colleagues posted on Facebook, Twitter, and Instagram, can lead to making comparisons. Comparing your own holiday activities to these picture-perfect snap shots can heighten feelings of loneliness and dissatisfaction. As with media in general, it is important to remind ourselves that hardly anyone puts up pics on social media as they roll out of bed. Similarly, rarely will someone’s status detail a family fight around the tree. People are showing their best moments and it can be misleading for the rest of us.

Loneliness and depression can be intertwined. Both are associated with sadness, lack of motivation, and a negative outlook – leading to beliefs that others may not be interested in or care about them. Thus, both can result in a self-defeating cycle, in which a person afflicted with loneliness is even less likely to reach out and create connections.

Yet, unsurprisingly, this is precisely the key to overcoming loneliness and depression – surrounding ourselves with others, engaging in activities, and connecting with friends, family, and new acquaintances.

Here, a few ideas of how to manage loneliness around the holiday season.

  1. Help others: Volunteering at soup kitchen, homeless shelter, or church can boost feelings of self-worth, facilitate connections with other volunteers, and increase overall engagement.
  2. Plan ahead: If you feel like you’ll be alone, reconnect with old friends or plan your own party or gathering.
  3. Enjoy solitude: Instead of focusing on feeling lonely, try to enjoy the time you have to yourself. Take the time for self-care, reading a good book, or relaxing.

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