Nestled in the midst of the holiday season, Thanksgiving is one of my favorite celebrations of the year — a day focused entirely on drawing our loved ones close to us and taking time to reflect on all the reasons we have to be grateful.
While the flashier holidays, with their gift exchanges, extravagant décor and many television specials, may get more attention and a bigger build-up — anyone else start spotting Christmas ads before Halloween? — Thanksgiving is a holiday whose spirit I would welcome year round. Cultivating an attitude of gratitude doesn't just make you a nicer person with more peace of mind, it's good for your health.
While tryptophan is commonly associated with Thanksgiving — and the oft-debunked myth that it's the reason why Turkey Day dinner causes drowsiness — let us turn our attention to a set of different body chemicals: dopamine, serotonin and the other feel-good chemicals like endorphins our brains release when we're feeling joy — or gratitude.
At the University of California, Davis, the study of gratitude and its effect on our well-being is ongoing. The project's co-investigators, Robert A. Emmons and Michael E. McCullough (from the University of Miami), make a good point: Scientists are late to the gratitude party. Gratitude long has been embraced by religions and philosophy as an indispensable component to health and well-being. Science is catching up, finding that gratitude is associated with reported better physical health, more happiness and increased optimism. Studies have also found it's associated with greater alertness, enthusiasm and goal-attainment. One study, examining adults with neuromuscular disease, found that after 21 days of gratitude exercises, participants reported feeling more energetic, a greater sense of connection with others and better duration and quality of sleep compared to a control group.
How can we inject more appreciation into our daily lives?
Write it down. Emmons and McCullough's work repeatedly points to daily or weekly gratitude journals as important tools to increased health and happiness. Those who wrote once a week about what they were thankful for exercised more, reported fewer physical problems and felt better about their lives compared to those who kept records of hassles or neutral events. An added bonus was the thankful diarists also were more likely to have made progress toward academic, personal and health-based goals over a two-month period.
Once a week is enough. A study that compared people who kept journals three times a week versus weekly found the weekly group was happier over time. Record your feelings of appreciation as often as feels right to you.
Say thank you. In addition to the simple and nearly automatic thank you uttered when someone passes the mashed yams, take time to thank those who have made a positive impact on your life — recently or in the past.
A Kent State University study asked students to write one letter of gratitude to someone once every two weeks for six weeks. The only requirements were that the letters had to be positive, require some insight and reflection, cover an important issue and express a high level of appreciation. The more students wrote, the better they felt.
Expressive writing is also associated with higher grades, fewer health problems, and decreased depression.
So, write a letter to your parents, a favorite professor, an aunt who helped you through a rough time, a friend who has been there for you. It will make you feel better. And, if you're not the type to take pen to paper, with the advent of social networking, virtually every significant figure in our lives — and some insignificant ones, too — are at our fingertips. In lieu of a handwritten letter, even a heartfelt online message could have some benefit. Though also keep in mind...
Do not compare yourself to others. Reflecting on the official celebration of gratitude, I'm reminded of the Stanford study that came out in January about social networking contributing to depression. The constant comparison of our own lives to what amounts to the highlights reel of vacation photos, baby's momentous (or not-so-momentous) firsts, chatter about parties and concerts running through our social network newsfeeds, can leave us feeling more isolated in our emotional difficulties than we are.
This time of year especially, it's easy to compare ourselves to others — perhaps measuring yourself against that relative who effortlessly perfectly roasts the turkey, whips up a dozen side dishes from scratch without breaking a sweat, while your idea of culinary prowess is not burning the Stovetop stuffing in the microwave.
In that spirit, don't fret over the perfection of the meal. No one will remember if the turkey was dry, or the gravy came out of a jar, if a side dish was left off the menu, or if the pie came from the store — not straight out of the oven. Focus instead on the people around the table, on the victories of the past year, and adversities overcome.
Just a word on surviving the holidays: This time of year, overspending, over-scheduling, missing loved ones who have passed, and memories of past "perfect" holidays can be a recipe for the holiday blues. Difficult relatives will not magically reform, so have a plan for managing your interactions with them. Craft your priorities carefully so you don't crowd your schedule with too many obligations. Make time for yourself, and be in the moment — not sweating the details — as much as possible.
Be grateful for the holiday that you're having, not the perfect one you may have in your head or see in a magazine.
Back to those gratitude studies: One of them also found that gratefulness is associated with less materialism. So, set your focus on these things, and you may even find yourself so overwhelmed with gratitude for what you already have, you'll be able to resist setting your alarm for the wee hours and joining the crush of frantic shoppers on my least favorite holiday: Black Friday.