Ira Hillman -

Dec 8, 2020

A Season of Giving

As we go into Chanukah, Christmas, and the New Year, expectations and tensions will be high. It has been a long year with increased challenges for so many of us. I have friends who were sick this year and are still recovering. Unfortunately, I also lost a friend this year who died unexpectedly. And, far too many of my friends are out of work or losing income as a result of the pandemic and the economy.

To distract myself from all of those worries – and as a way to reach out to my circle of support – I have been focusing my attention on sending holiday cards. I am one of those people who likes to send a holiday card to every person whose mailing address I have and that I have ever met. So, I have been spending late nights and weekends distracting myself from the news by scouring my phone for the perfect photo for the card, writing personal notes on each and every one I send, and mailing them all out before the holidays begin.

Each of us is experiencing different forms of stress – and perhaps even creating more in how we are handling it. Stress relief is so important to well-being at all times, but I, like many of you, could really use some during this season.

The Nurture Science Program at Columbia University researches how emotional connection helps us calm each other, which helps us with stress, mood, and physical health at every age.

Just as the song Grateful reminds me of connecting to my family and community, I find that many songs offer life lessons about connecting with each other. So this month, as the days get short and cold, and we might be tempted to retreat into our phones, I want to share eight songs with you that not only make my family and me feel the warm sparkle of emotional connection, but also remind me how to practice it with those I love.

Eye Contact

“In your eyes
The light the heat
In your eyes
I am complete”

—In Your Eyes, by Peter Gabriel

Many have said that the eyes are the window to the soul. We know this from our own lives. When we do something embarrassing or wrong, we avoid eye contact with others. We worry that they will see the truth. But it works in reverse, too. If we are feeling lonely and isolated, we can use eye contact to connect.

On Zoom, try taking turns with a loved one or friend, sharing how you feel. When you speak, be sure you are looking directly at the camera (not at yourself on Zoom – you can “hide self-view” to make it easier). Look at their eyes when they speak to you. You will both feel better.


“You fill up my senses like a night in a forest,
Like the mountains in springtime,
Like a walk in the rain, like a storm in the desert,
Like a sleepy blue ocean.
You fill up my senses, come fill me again.”

—Annie’s Song, by John Denver

Even when we can’t see each other or be together, we can still connect through our senses. One our most powerful senses is the sense of smell.

The Nurture Science Program studied the effects of smell on premature babies and their mothers. When the mother and baby exchanged a piece of clothing or small cloth held against the other’s skin, the smell calmed them, helped them connect emotionally, and in some cases even reduced pain and helped them sleep.

Many of us are spending the holidays away from those with whom we usually celebrate them. Cook a food, buy a perfume/cologne/detergent, or buy a flower or plant that you associate with those you miss. Let the smell calm you during a stressful time by reminding you of those you love.

Talking & Listening

“Just call my name and I’ll be there (I’ll be there)
And oh, I’ll be there to comfort you”

—I’ll Be There, by Jackson 5

If we’ve learned one thing from 2020, it is that being together is not the same as connecting. This may be even truer during the holidays. Tensions may be high related to the pandemic, racial injustice, politics, or all of the above. Many of us have been taught to keep things polite and avoid controversial topics. This is where listening comes in.

But many of us are also carrying hurt and fear and anxiety. We, and our family and friends, need an outlet for this heart-to-heart communication. We can be there for each other and create the space for deep connection. When we connect so deeply, our bodies talk to each other (via our senses, which send signals to our vagus nerves), helping us to calm each other, feel better, and bounce back from stress.

Talking about hard feelings is important, but it’s not the only way to connect. At bedtime or nap time, consider having story time to tell your children the stories of their birth, or how they got their names. You might want to ask your parents the same questions, or share a story with a friend about how you met. Sharing these emotional stories, and allowing ourselves to express these emotions, creates opportunities for emotional connection.

Family Support

“I’ll be there for you
(When the rain starts to pour)
I’ll be there for you
(Like I’ve been there before)
I’ll be there for you
(‘Cause you’re there for me too)”

I'll Be There for You, by The Rembrandts

Whether we’re living together or alone, now is the time to reconnect with our circle of support. This may be our family of birth or the chosen family we have created among friends. I am always elated when my personal note on a holiday card prompts a friend or family member to call and rekindle the spark of our relationship (it’s like a light inside of me to match the brightness of the Chanukah – or Christmas – lights).

Find those in your life who can make themselves available to you (either in person or via Zoom, phone, etc.). Also be sure that you connect with those who are helpful, even if not always available. Most importantly, think about one or two people who can be available and helpful, ask them for what you need, and make time to connect.

On the other hand, is there anyone you love, where you might be the available or helpful one? This is the season for giving and receiving, so let’s start positive, reciprocal habits in our relationships.

Crying Together

“I cried a tear, you wiped it dry
I was confused, you cleared my mind”

—You Needed Me, by Anne Murray

Not all crying needs to come from disagreement or personal frustrations with others. We live in a time when anxiety and stress are at all-time highs. The holidays can just bring it to another level. But our bodies are programmed for mutual calming with one another.

When we share our concerns, release our upset, and cry together, those emotions bring us closer and allow us to feel all of our other feelings. If we keep them bottled up, it can be harder to get to that calm, connected place. This year, especially, many of us have experienced loss. A dear friend of mine died suddenly just over a month ago, and I am still feeling shattered by it. When I cry with his husband or my husband, and we grieve together, our bodies – and our brains – feel healed.

Holding & Touching

“Reach out and touch
Somebody’s hand
Make this world a better place
If you can”

—Reach Out and Touch (Somebody’s Hand), by Diana Ross

When I think back to my early days of parenting, I remember soothing both of our kids by holding them. Holding or hugging our loved ones offers benefits that talking alone just can’t. There are days when I am frustrated or feeling down, or perhaps stubbed my toe. My daughter will come and give me a hug or she will kiss my boo-boo. Her human touch soothes me.

All of us need to be touched in order to thrive. This is how our bodies are wired! Loving touch helps us know that we’re safe and cared for, so that we can put mental resources to learning and creativity, instead of just survival.


“Music makes the people come together”

—Music, by Madonna

Seasonal songs and songs of worship can be powerful ways to get connected at this time of year, down to breathing at the very same time. While it may not be safe to sing with a large chorus or to go caroling in your neighborhood (which this young Jewish boy loved to do with his Christian friends), we can sing with loved ones in our homes or use technology to sing with others.

When my husband and my children join me in chanting the blessings for the Chanukah candles, I feel a deep connection to them – and my parents and brother with whom I chanted those same blessings together for so many years. In a time when you might pull your hair out if you hear another version of Jingle Bell Rock, you can find the holiday tune that you enjoy or a favorite from your youth and belt it out together (this year, with few people around, who cares how off-key we sound?!).

When our normal schedules are disrupted, we can all use reminders of who we are outside of this time of year. The familiar tunes of year-round bedtime lullabies or favorite songs that the whole family enjoys (we are partial to Toto’s Africa) can be especially important.

We need this just as much as kids do. And that’s why this list of songs about emotional connection isn’t a “holiday” list at all. Emotional connection is a year-round gift.

A Season of Giving

“My gift is my song and this one’s for you”

—Your Song, by Elton John

Speaking of gifts, my present to you is a playlist of the songs mentioned in this blog – which have also been playing on repeat while I write notes on all those holiday cards! When I listen, I am grateful for the connections I have made in my life. And the playlist also reminds us of the seven activities of nurture that keep those connections strong and bring us emotional support: Eye Contact, Smelling, Talking & Listening, Family Support, Crying Together, Holding & Touching, and Singing. These songs, and the connections they create, bring me joy and fill my heart. I wish the same for you this season and always.

Ira Hillman leads Einhorn Collaborative’s Bonding strategy. Learn more about our work in Bonding and more about Ira. Sign up to receive our monthly newsletter and be the first to read Ira’s blog posts.