I’m a huge fan of Dicken’s A Christmas Carol in all its forms. Whether the lead is played by Bill Murray, Scrooge McDuck, or a friend in a local theater production, Ebenezer Scrooge is a character that is at once easy to revile and also easy to relate to — and his transformation brings hope to us all. Perhaps this season, I too will shed my materialistic, ambitious lifestyle and find meaning and joy in genuinely helping others.
In my Psychobiology of Stress course, we have been discussing the stress-related consequences of certain personalities and temperaments, in particular, the Type A personality. We consider case studies of individuals who are materially successful, achieving new heights as they climb their professional ladders, but who are never satisfied. In extreme cases, these individuals are tense, agitated, distrustful, have few friends, and perceive the world as a deeply stressful place. Not surprisingly, these folks have terrible immune systems, are at a higher risk for cardiovascular and metabolic diseases, and face shortened life-expectancies. The irony in our western culture is our glorification of the Type A personality. We admire those high achievers most of the year — until we watch those holiday movies and condemn the Scrooges of the world.
Even while we recognize these behaviors as Scrooge-ey, it is easy for our brains to hijack the holiday season and actually worsen our behavior. Our brains are designed to be greedy. From an evolutionary standpoint, greed served a survival function. Having a constant urge to work, fight, protect, and collect possessions — whether it be tools, food, meat, shelter or mates — kept people alive. Greed is fueled by dopamine released into the nucleus accumbens (the pleasure centers of the brain). It feels great — or even addicting — to get the things we want or think we need.
The holiday season is a particularly ripe time of year for letting our brains go haywire, because of the anticipation. Anticipation is the sweetest spice of life. Dopamine, your pleasure neurochemical, is highest when we anticipate a reward, more than even getting the reward. Watching Mom slice and plate your favorite family Christmas cake is even more exciting to your brain than eating it! Much of the delight of the holiday season is anticipation — looking forward to special foods, gifts, laughter, hugs, songs, ceremonies, and all the quirky traditions of your family or tribe.
But even though we are motivated by the anticipation of reward, the reward itself is still crucial. If it doesn’t show up, we feel let down, disappointed and empty. Our neural circuitry is wired to pay special attention to those disappointments and failed rewards, to protect us in the future. But this leads us to an addictive spiral of needing more and more — of everything!
So here we are, revving up our frontal cortex to imagine all the beautiful things of the season, anticipate the emotional context of each activity, and then we also imagine all the possible things that can go wrong. Now our frontal cortex is talking to our amygdala (fear center) and causing us stress and leading us to a place of fear that leaves us vulnerable to persuasion. Not only am I happily anticipating my children’s faces on Christmas morning, I’m also a bit fearful. What if they are disappointed? What if I ruin the magic of the holiday season by purchasing the wrong doll or a book that is already on our shelf? I think… perhaps I’d better buy a few more things.
Advertisers have gotten extremely adept at targeting the areas of our brain that influence behavior — memory centers, fear centers, etc. There’s a whole field of this called neuromarketing. Fear and greed are primary motivators in our purchasing decisions. This desire is magnified around the holidays, as specific and detailed advertisements appear on every screen I look at, reminding me to fill Santa’s list with fancy gizmos for the kids, that I should expect some expensive jewelry from my husband, and that I ought to consider buying a new car.
To combat the crippling mental and physical effects of this stress, our brains need us to be proactive in creating moments of calm and reflection — as hard as that is around the holidays when there’s so much to be done. Beyond the pause for reflection and gratitude around Thanksgiving, we need more time to stop and allow our brains to put the pressures of the season in perspective with our accomplishments and possessions. We need to make time and space for satisfaction and gratitude.
It turns out that gratitude may be the cure for greed.
Gratitude is a feeling of appreciation and generally positive emotions in response to gifts, help, favor, generosity and kindness. It is associated with altruism. Robert Emmons, a professor of psychology at the University of California, Davis, and a leading scientific expert on gratitude, describes gratitude as an affirmation of the goodness in the world and a recognition that good things come to us from others. Emmons describes gratitude as a relationship-strengthening emotion, because it requires us to acknowledge how we’ve been supported and affirmed by others.
Gratitude has only recently begun to get some attention from neuroscientists, but initial studies, such as this one from Damasio’s group are beginning to map the regions of the brain that allow us to understand moral cognition and positive emotion that comes from the experience of receiving goodwill. These grateful brain regions (anterior cingulate cortex and medial prefrontal cortex) partially overlap, but are mostly different from the reward pathways of greed. Happiness, a long elusive concept, may be defined in lots of ways — from the jumping for joy elation of a dopamine-fueled achievement to the peaceful contentment of having received help with the after holiday meal dishes.
Taking the time to purposefully recognize gratitude in our lives will help combat the stresses of the modern world, especially when we are feeling overwhelmed by holiday commercialization. When we take time to focus on our blessings, we shift our attention toward the things that are good and right in our lives, and we create positive roadmaps in our brain that will continue to be reinforced and improve mood for long-term daily well-being.
Here are three easy ways to help your brain create that important perspective:
- Write thank you notes, even if it’s something as simple as sending a text with a photo attached thanking someone for the gift they sent.
- Create a gratitude jar, or keep a gratitude journal or gratitude calendar. Make it a family activity to write down something you feel grateful for every day, or to share grateful thoughts over a meal or at bedtime.
- Consider spreading gift-giving across the holiday season, rather than bingeing on one day. Make time to watch others open your gifts and pause after each gift received to acknowledge the giver.
This holiday season, acknowledge your inner Scrooge, and help him to look around and value the precious present.
Greed is a bottomless pit which exhausts the person in an endless effort to satisfy the need without ever reaching satisfaction. —Erich Fromm, Escape From Freedom
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