Tuesday, December 11, 2012

Coming in from the cold

Scottish Christmas Walk
© Alexandria Convention & Visitors Association
Holiday season around here kicks off with an event peculiar to our part of the world-- Alexandria, Virginia's annual Scottish Walk. The parade ends with Santa, as most parades after Thanksgiving do. But it honors Alexandria's heritage, and so it includes some unusual elements: marching bagpipe ensembles, Scottie dogs, and lots of tartan!

I must confess, we don't stand along the parade route each and every year, but we always go to a Holiday Open House hosted by a dear friend whose office is close by. When we open the door into her town home office, we notice the aroma of spiced hot cider, and we we are immediately enveloped in a feeling of good holiday cheer. When I attend these gatherings, I always leave with a new friend or business contact. Somehow, the atmosphere our hostess creates invariably allows for easy connectivity.

What is her secret? This past Sunday's New York Times gave me a clue. In their very informative "Gray Matter" column, authors Hans Ijzerman and Justin Saddlemyer describes research linking feelings of connection (and its opposite, octracism) to body temperature: "Research has shown that things like heart rate, levels of respiration and other involuntary physiological responses are affected by social connectedness. Thus, when people feel excluded, blood vessels at the periphery of the body (in the fingertips, for example) may narrow, preserving core body heat. This classic protective mechanism is known as vasoconstriction." Once again, science has given the biology behind our feelings: in this case, the reason we feel "left out in the cold" when we are not included! 

The good news is that the converse is also true, and I can only surmise that my gracious hostess knew that serving warm cider is not only festive, but conducive to conviviality!  ". . .  touching something warm after a feeling of ostracism — like holding a warm cup of coffee — is enough to halt and even reverse some of these autonomic responses. It seems as if the body can be fooled into feeling welcomed by applying a little warmth in the right places. And the effect is reciprocal: studies in our own lab and at Yale have found that adults and young children are more social after they’ve touched something warm."

I think we can all use this news. In professional settings, we can make sure to offer those hot beverages when is seems our connections may be weakening. In our social lives we can keep our spirits and core temperatures up -- if not through clothing (female festive wear is notable for it goosebump-inducing, flesh-baring sparkles) -- through eating or drinking something that gives us that warm and reassuring feeling inside. Or standing beside someone who does! 

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