The Science of Holiday Gratitude. Sue’s 10 Tips to have your best holiday season.

The holidays are a season filled with emotions. Some call it emotional turmoil. Some call it emotional exuberance. I like to call it emotional overflow. Whatever you call it, feelings bubble during the holiday season.

For some, it’s easy to consider what you’re grateful for. For others, it’s hard to feel grateful for anything. No matter where you are on the spectrum, what if there was scientific evidence that feeling grateful more often could influence your life for the better? What if not feeling grateful inhibits your overall wellness?

If that were the case, would you think about what you are thankful for more often and not wait for the holiday season to share and express to others how grateful you have been all year long?

The science of gratitude

Surfing the web, I found a number of citations for a 2015 research paper discussing the effects of gratitude and health. However, this research turned out to be more about the church and being benevolent and grateful to God.

Other research, though, found that rarely feeling grateful was linked to more frequent mood swings and personality disorders, as well as an inability to cultivate quality relationships.

Feeling grateful and happy was found to boost sleep, improve relationship management, and strengthen adaptability (the ability to bounce back) when stress occurs. In addition, these emotions were found to increase self-esteem, improve psychological balance, and reduce pain symptoms.

Years of working with people in chronic pain have made me recognize the link between health and emotions. I’ve spent many hours helping people learn more about their brain and how it produces emotional responses, including the sensation of pain. The limbic system and its relationship to our emotions play a big role in our overall happiness and wellness.

Science is showing that happiness, gratitude, and joy produce positive health responses. So what are some simple things you can do to express your gratitude and thanks?

  • Call a friend. I get it, social media and texting is the way of our society. But how about an actual phone call to someone just to say hello? You would be surprised how much you can lift up a person just by talking to them. And that will make you both feel good.
  • Make eye contact. The next time you’re out shopping, look at the person helping you and say, “Hey, thanks for doing a great job and working during the holidays.”
  • Find opportunities at a local soup kitchen or homeless shelter. Ask friends to do this with you. Get together and see how much you can raise for a charity.
  • Connect physically. Get a hug, a handshake, some form of physical touch. It’s important for all of us to have physical contact. It could be a pet, even a plant or a tree … the important thing is that you connect with something living. It can help the regions of your brain that interpret and shade your emotional lens.
  • See people in person. Invite friends over. People who worry about their financial situation will often not invite people over because serving others can be expensive. If you are in that category, do a potluck or BYO-whatever. Remember, it’s not about the food or drink – it’s about making connection with others.
  • Nix the negative responses. Grateful people don’t necessarily live an easier life than people who don’t feel grateful. In fact, many of the people who have had incredibly difficult things happen to them show the most gratitude. They understand that it isn’t the situation that’s the problem; it’s how you think about the situation that makes it easier or more difficult.
  • Keep a gratitude journal. Record something you feel grateful for every day for one month.
  • Shift the negative moments. Bashing yourself or someone else is going to make you less able to be truly thankful. When you find that you’re criticizing yourself or another person, stop, consciously recognize you are doing it, and try to notice the feeling that’s making your emotional filter negative. Just doing this can cut your connection to the feeling. It’s a simple way to disconnect from the negative pathways and responses – you improve your control and feel a sense that you can overcome the belief.
  • Practice mindfulness. The MELT Method is just one method founded on awareness and being more mindful of your current state. One thing I frequently say at the beginning of a MELT class is, “Give yourself permission to go into your body and sense what you feel.” By being in the moment, you are making it impossible for your brain to race ahead and worry about the future or become bogged down in the past. This is one way of practicing thankfulness because you are immersing yourself in the present and acknowledging and thanking the importance of the “now.” You can do this with meditation, as well as movement therapies – even something as simple as walking – so seek out one that resonates with your needs and likes.
  • Create a healthy lifestyle. Start by forming better habits like getting enough sleep, sipping water more frequently, eating healthy, nutritious food, and exercising a little each day. Find some type of cardiovascular movement that gets your heart rate up to 65 percent of your maximum. Just walk up a few flights of stairs, go for a 10-minute walk, but do it with intention and focus.

My New Year’s challenge to you: Devote a few minutes each day to feeling or expressing gratitude and see if it makes you feel better overall. Keep you and your family healthy this holiday season and every year by spending a little time expressing your thanks and gratefulness to something or someone in your life.

Krause, N., Emmons, R.A. & Ironson, G. J Relig Health (2015) 54: 1503. doi:10.1007/s10943-015-0063-0

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