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12 Ways to Comfort Friends Who've Had a Rough Year

Our acts of kindness increase the wellbeing of others as well as ourselves.

Key points

  • According to a poll in 2022, 27 percent of respondents reported being too stressed to function most days.
  • Studies show that offering acts of kindness to others in distress is comforting for them as well as oneself.
  • One of the most important ways to comfort a friend is to meet up with them in person, even if it can only be for 30 minutes.
Cottonbro Studio/Pexels
Source: Cottonbro Studio/Pexels

Over the holidays, we bid farewell to a year that has been particularly rough for many of us. This October, an American Psychological Association poll stated, “Americans are struggling with multiple external stressors that are out of their personal control, with 27 percent reporting that most days they are so stressed they cannot function.”

You probably know friends or loved ones who’ve suffered a devastating year. They’ve endured forces beyond their control such as losing a home, a job rejection, a financial or health crisis, no-shows at major events, a breakup, or being ghosted by a trusted friend. Perhaps you’ve noticed a sense of bitterness or hopelessness intensifying in your friends as the disappointments keep adding up—but now it’s the holiday season—not a good time for them to join in merrymaking, decorating, gift-giving, or socializing.

How might you offer genuine comfort to someone who feels unable to reciprocate the holiday cheer, let alone muster up a happy mood? You don’t want to put your friend on the spot or make it awkward. Are there ways to show you care when you’re already too busy or too tired to do very much for anyone else?

Fortunately, there are many popular and proven ways to show your friend or loved one that you truly do care. It’s a relief during the holidays to know that even one small gesture of kindness can go a long way—and neuroscience supports this truth along with the belief that doing good makes us feel good. Over the past 25 years, the “Do Good, Feel Good” theory (also called effective altruism) has been researched in studies that show us how gestures of kindness do matter—to the giver as well as the receiver.

And here is more encouraging news about comforting: In research this year, a study called “Too Reluctant to Reach Out: Receiving Social Support Is More Positive Than Expressers Expect,” shows that the receiver of someone’s support benefits more than what the giver had anticipated. Many of us who want to offer support worry that we might not be effective or say the “wrong” thing, but this research encourages us not to shy away from giving support because the receiver appreciates the caring and warmth involved. In short, even though it may feel awkward, it means a lot to that person when you genuinely show up to offer your comfort. Yes, the thought, the effort, the care, the kindness—that’s what counts. Comforting your friends and loved ones after a year of hardships can generate a mutual sense of well-being.

12 Ways to Comfort Others During the Holidays

Over the past 20 years, I’ve facilitated grief and caregiver support groups as well as recreational and arts activities where I’ve witnessed how supportive words and gestures make a world of difference for those in distress. I would like to suggest 12 of the most popular and actionable ways we can comfort our friends and loved ones over the holidays.

Any one of the following acts of kindness can be offered during the holidays as 2022 comes to a close. I would emphasize that the first two actions are the most important ways to comfort your friend, and the others that follow can provide comforting opportunities for reaching out over the weeks and into the new year.

  1. First and foremost, invite your friend to get together with you, and during your visit take a moment to sincerely acknowledge their disappointment or loss. Even if you can only spare 30 minutes, you might treat your friend to a warm beverage—or offer a hug. Meeting up in person can make a world of difference for someone who feels lonely and left out after a major letdown. If time allows, spend time for a leisurely meal (home-cooked or out at a cozy restaurant) to provide an opportunity for your friend to talk while you can closely listen. (And by now, of course, we all know that a phone call or Zoom visit is the next best thing if we cannot get together in person.)
  2. Acknowledge your friend’s loss, disappointment, or hardship with a letter or card. It’s validating for someone to recognize, in writing, their frustrating setbacks or painful ordeal.
  3. Invite your friend for a private walk with you in a peaceful natural area. Or take a drive to a special spot with a glorious view. (The Pew Research Center just reported that being in nature is the third most popular way to relieve stress, reflected by 71 percent of Americans.)
  4. Offer enjoyable diversions. Invite your loved one or friend to join you in a Watch Party to share a favorite holiday movie, watch a ball game, or even enjoy a goofy TV series. Or join in games—cards, video games, word puzzles, trivia, Mahjong, and others.
  5. Create and send a thoughtful playlist of music that you feel they would enjoy (perhaps on Spotify). You might title the playlist: “Songs That Make Me Think of You,” or “Music Just for You.”
  6. Make something with your hands. Whether it's a handmade greeting card, your own artwork, a wreath or ornament, a knitted hat, a wood carving, or a beaded gift, your creation shares your unique, personal touch.
  7. Surprise your loved one or friend with a home delivery of something you know they personally adore (delivered with a handwritten note or card, “You deserve this after a crappy 2022")--a basketful of cheeses, a jar of a spicy sauce, muffins, scented candles or soaps, roses, a potted plant, catnip for their cat, or treats for their dog.
  8. Send a collection of photos or memorabilia (“I’ll never forget that day…”) that are meaningful to them, either in an email or as a snail mail gift as a scrapbook.
  9. Send your friend tickets to a ball game or concert, with an invitation to join you for the upcoming event.
  10. Send a sincere letter of gratitude for their love and support of you.
  11. Invite your friend to an upcoming social gathering in the new year. And if you have a dog or cat, your friend can just visit you and enjoy your pet at your home.
  12. Give your friend a gift card for a “spa day” or manicure, massage, facial, or another healing treatment.

Is there anything else comforting that I didn’t mention here? Of course, there is much more—and the list is endless. Hopefully, these 12 ways of comforting can inspire you to take action this holiday season. Or maybe there is something truly comforting you are already doing for someone—and it feels good, right down to your bones, just thinking about it. Indeed, 2022 may have been rough for you, too, and giving comfort to others is comforting you while we all close out this year with hope and joy.

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