• Ira Hillman

Gratitude and Connection

Grateful by John Bucchino is one of my favorite songs. I first heard David Campbell perform it more than 20 years ago, and the lyrics stay with me, especially this time of year.

I've got a roof over my head I've got a warm place to sleep Some nights I lie awake counting gifts Instead of counting sheep

There is so much for which I am grateful, but as I look forward to the holiday, I think of my family. In 2010, I added “being a parent” to my gratitude list. Now, ten years later, that’s still at the top of my list. I will never forget all the emotions I felt when I first held our son. I vividly recall the nights in his room when he was a baby: rocking him to sleep, smelling his head, mesmerized by his angelic face, singing songs I made up to lull him to sleep.

The author, Ira Hillman, with his infant son

A few years later, I learned that science backed up what I felt and did. This kind of heart-to-heart communication through our five senses triggers feelings in our gut. Then, our gut signals our behavior and our brain, which bring those feelings to life out in the world, with each other. This sensory-emotional connection helps us relate to and calm each other, which also helps us with stress, mood, and physical health at every age.

Now, as a parent to a 10-year old boy and 9-year old girl, I know that family time is not all intimate moments of gratitude with original songs. Going into this holiday season, I expect that my family and I will feel a lot of things besides grateful. I feel regret and sadness that I won’t be able to celebrate these holidays with my own mother and father – we’ve already missed being together for Passover, Mother’s Day, Father’s Day, and everyone’s birthday (and mine was a big one this year!). I’m sure I will also feel nervous and uneasy about the health of my husband, my kids, and me. And, being cooped up together as the days get shorter and the temperature drops, I know we will grow irritated with one another. In times of stress, we need emotional connection even more. But it’s at these times, when we don’t necessarily feel inspired, that it can seem out of reach.

Activities of Nurture

The Nurture Science Program at Columbia University, which researches the developmental and lifelong benefits of emotional connection, has identified activities of nurture that use our five senses to get connected to each other. And sure enough, singing is one of them.

Like all the activities of nurture in their own way, singing helps us calm each other; it’s also well-known to help with immunity, mood, sleep, and even dementia. But the thing that brings me back to singing, over and over, isn’t that I know it’s good for me. What had me sing made up songs for my son, and what has me write blog posts titled after Broadway show tunes, is that I love the feelings that songs give me, the feelings they bring out in my family, and how they help us connect to each other. And it turns out that those warm, connected feelings are important, and drive many of those other health benefits.

Learning about the healing effects of singing was “music to my ears.” It made me confident that I had something that felt right, always at my fingertips (or on the tip of my tongue), that didn’t cost any money, that my family and I could do together to get connected. And seeing how many of my senses were involved—from smell, to touch, to sight— in those most-connected moments made me understand that emotional connection isn’t just something we know about, or think about, or that just comes from being together. Connecting emotionally is something we do with each other.

Connecting across distance

As winter approaches, the epidemic of loneliness and isolation will get worse for many of us because of health risks heightened by traveling and being close to others indoors. So, we will be even more isolated in the darkest days of the year. That separation can be hard on our bodies and our brains, but if we use our senses and practice connecting with those we love, emotional connection can buffer that stress. That’s what makes it so important to connect, especially when we are not together.

I’ve got a heart that can hold love

I’ve got a mind that can think

There may be times when I lose the light

And let my spirits sink…

I’m thinking of my older relatives, and friends who will be working in essential services, and those who could really benefit from the stress relief and health boost of emotional connection this holiday. I’m thinking of my own separation and disconnection from my parents, and how making special time to connect will help us both. As I think about all of us, I see opportunities to reconnect with our circle of support: that might be our family of birth, or our chosen family. People love to be needed and to be helpful to others. While getting my parents to figure out Zoom almost led to screaming and tears, I cried tears of joy and love when all three generations of my family could sing together for Passover. Whether it’s Zoom, phone, or whatever you have accessible, give your loved ones the chance to feel heart-to-heart connection with you. It benefits you both.

Connecting at home

In my family, especially after eight months of mostly together-time, we know that being together isn’t the same as being connected. So, we’re going back to the basics. Whether we’re holding each other’s feelings when we’re upset, or holding each other’s hands and expressing our gratitude at the table, we’re going to use our senses, and connect. That might be through crying together to release our upset, or sharing a really good hug while talking about those we miss. It could mean making eye contact while listening to each other share a happy memory.

One thing is for sure. There will be singing. Even though I was raised in a Jewish home, both of my parents loved Christmas carols, so I can still remember Johnny Mathis and Frank Sinatra crooning. As we transition from turkey to winter holiday decorations, I will be spreading holiday cheer loudly (and off-key) to welcome Silver Bells to our Winter Wonderland. My husband and kids will join in the fun, adding some of their own favorites to the mix. These are indeed a few of My Favorite Things.

How about you and your family (biological or found)? Are you cuddlers, or criers, or storytellers? Whatever your family’s and friends’ favorite way of connecting, remind yourselves of its simple joy in this complex time by engaging each other in it.

All of the sensory-emotional ways through which we express great joy and love for each other, such as singing, eye contact, touch, and listening, are the same simple practices that can help us get present together even through difficult feelings, and truly connect with each other during the holidays. And this year, as we go into a holiday that looks very different from the ones we’re used to, I feel grateful to share that gift with my family.

In a city of strangers

I’ve got a family of friends

No matter what rocks and brambles fill the way

I know that they will stay until the end.

Ira Hillman leads Einhorn Collaborative’s Bonding strategy. You can learn more about our work in Bonding here and more about Ira here.