Abu Dhabi, UAESunday 17 November 2019

Holidays allow us to connect to family, friends and the world around us

Experts believe that maintaining a strong and supportive social network is crucial to our psychological wellbeing

Families spend a public holiday in Umm Suqeim park. Reem Mohammed 
Families spend a public holiday in Umm Suqeim park. Reem Mohammed 

Last Tuesday, the UAE Cabinet issued a decree aligning the number of official holidays across the public and private sector. Previously, public sector employees had enjoyed more public holidays than those working for private companies. Now, however, everyone can enjoy these breaks together – and there are a full 14 days scheduled for 2019. But what exactly are the psychological benefits of official days off school and work?

Beyond the obvious additional time for rest and recreation, holidays are important in promoting togetherness. The sense of social connection that shared leisure time provides is one of the most important aspects of time away from the office, classroom or factory floor. Enjoying the company of friends, family and loved ones strengthens our ties to one another and makes us feel more deeply integrated with wider society. Decades of research in psychology has repeatedly shown that a well-developed sense of connection to others, and the feeling that they are there for us, is associated with better mental health.

Association is, of course, not necessarily the same thing as causation. For example, the link between psychological wellbeing and social connection might also be explained by mental health problems putting a strain on our relationships. This has raised the tricky question of whether social connection actively promotes a sense of wellbeing, whether mental health problems simply erode our relationships, or whether it’s a bit of both?

Research published in the Australian & New Zealand Journal of Psychiatry in 2018 attempted to settle this debate. A study of more than 21,000 people, found that, over time, social connection was a much stronger and more consistent predictor of psychological wellbeing than mental health status was of social connection or any lack thereof. In other words, social connection does appear to be a powerful influence on our psychological wellbeing. This idea has become so popular among experts that some of them now speak of a “social cure” to certain mental health problems.

Traditions have long offered human beings a feeling of stability in a changing and frequently unpredictable world

Public holidays provide an excellent opportunity for us to strengthen our relationships with others in a relaxed atmosphere. They may also hold more profound social significance, in that they often represent and include many of our most cherished traditions. Holidays are frequently connected to important religious celebrations, such as Eid Al Fitr, or historical commemorations, such as National Day. The marking of these events becomes an essential part of our social identity and helps to build a feeling of community. Research in this area suggests that a strong and positive social identity, which includes the sense of being a valued part of something bigger than ourselves, is vital in terms of physical and mental health.

Traditions have long offered human beings a feeling of stability in a changing and frequently unpredictable world. Establishing set days for rest and reflection is just another part of our age-old efforts to make sense of the world around us.

When it comes down to it, holidays just make us happy. This statement might seem obvious, but if you really need proof, it is also corroborated by big data. As part of a specific strand of research into social media chat, known as sentiment analysis, data scientists have developed algorithms that can quantify the relative happiness reflected in online comments. Using these tools and concentrating on Arabic Twitter data, a joint team at Zayed University and Khalifa University in Abu Dhabi have observed significant peaks in online wellbeing associated with both Eids and other UAE public holidays.

However, it is worth remembering that holidays are extremely difficult for some people. If we are feeling lonely and isolated, times when everyone else seems to be together can be particularly challenging. For example, a study published in 2014 in the academic journal Australasian Psychiatry and based on almost two decades’ worth of data found a significant rise in suicides on Christmas Eve and New Year’s Day. These upsetting statistics should serve as a reminder to us all to take special care of anyone we know who might be experiencing difficulties during these times.

The building and maintaining of social connection is so essential to our wellbeing that many psychologists consider it a public health priority. Accordingly, we should prioritise it in our own everyday lives. After all, happiness and a feeling of belonging should not just be reserved for high days and holidays.

Dr Justin Thomas is a professor of psychology at Zayed University

Updated: March 13, 2019 05:49 PM

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