It’s Thursday at 1pm and sixteen family members surround my mother’s dining room table that is meant to sit eight. All but two of us are over 18 years old, but of course, don’t worry, we still have a ‘kid’s table.’ With heads down and hands clasped, my sister is summoned to say Grace. Only a few times a year do we take thirty quiet seconds to acknowledge the insane amount of delicious food ahead, our seemingly never-ending luck and privilege, our awesome genetics [thank you 90-year old Pepere for showing us what life is all about], and this crazy love we have for each other.
Hours later we are all sprawled across the house in different forms of rest: making puzzles on the couch, sleeping in the Lazy-Boy, watching football cross-legged on the floor, or gossiping across the dining room table still covered in desserts. Granted, as mentioned previously, I recognize the privilege to have this on a holiday [or any day], as not everyone does. Whether your home is full of warmth, food, and love – or not – there is something to this day of Thanksgiving that has the potential to create some serious gratitude.
There’s a lot to be said about the science of gratitude. Research lately is reminding us that feeling thankful has a handful of benefits, from improving relationships to reducing depression . Have you ever felt what I like to call “the warm and fuzzies?” You know, that surge of warmth and joy in your heart [maybe even the urge to hug someone]? When humans feel grateful for something, what we are truly feeling are the effects of dopamine.
Dopamine is a chemical called a neurotransmitter, whose job is to provide certain communication between our nerve cells (neurons) and brain. This little guy is released when something good happens and fires up the reward center of the brain . It is also known to activate the hypothalamus – the driver of basic body functions such as sleeping, eating, and even the drive for sex/reproduction [sorry Mom!]. This, by default, often leads to initiating some action and motivation to do that ‘good thing’ again. Take this for example – you come across some unexpected food, dopamine is released and triggers that reward-center and hypothalamus. You not only eat the food, but feel motivated to do it the next time too. This has been a huge part of our body’s survival technique! All of those damn famines [or diets, take your pick].
Because expressing gratitude plays on this dopamine/reward center/hypothalamus connection, science is now naming some fantastic health benefits: decreased physical ailments, reduced depression, improved sleep [potentially related to better managed anxiety], and enhanced empathy [probably part of those improved relationships] . Rather than stirring up in panic about being ‘healthy’ throughout the holiday season, why not start with giving thanks?
Need Some Tips on Cultivating Gratitude?
1. Saying “Thank you.” Practice this phrase as often as you can, whether verbally toward others, or quietly to yourself. Struggling with body image through the holidays? Try naming three reasons you are grateful for your body each day. Most days I am grateful for my two legs that allow me to walk and travel, my ears that help me to listen when others are in need, and my arms that give some pretty awesome hugs [for real though].
2. Find a Gratitude buddy. Any daily practice realistically relies on some serious accountability. Use a good friend, family member, or treatment provider to go in on this with you [trust me, they’ll thank you later]. You’ll be surprised to find how much easier it is! Earlier this year my friend suggested we become Gratitude Buddies – now we have a group of girlfriends that use a video app to send each other our daily thanks. Shout out Kristine Berube, RDN (@kristineberube)!
3. Pray or Meditate. Everyone has their preference, but sometimes it’s all about sending your thanks out into the universe. Taking one minute each day to say a prayer or meditate with an intended gratitude can cultivate some wonderful warm and fuzzies.
4. Write in a Journal. Ever have a teacher tell you the importance of using several senses while studying? Well writing down your gratitude while holding it in your heart feels sort of similar.
5. Write Thank You Letters. Again with the writing, only now you are likely benefitting another person too. I have this friend who is notorious for using the old art of snail mail, and I bet she’d be willing to vouch for feeling all the feels with every thank you letter she’s sent me. A perfect way to practice gratitude this holiday season.
Go ahead, test the theory. Warm up those neural pathways and spread some hearty love.
 Alex Korb, Ph.D. https://www.psychologytoday.com/us/blog/prefrontal-nudity/201211/the-grateful-brain. Psychology Today, Posted November 20, 2012. Website. Accessed November 17, 2018.
 Phil Newton. https://www.psychologytoday.com/us/blog/mouse-man/200904/what-is-dopamine. Psychology Today, Posted April 26, 2009. Website. Accessed November 17, 2018.
 Harvard Mental Health Letter. Author Unknown. https://www.health.harvard.edu/newsletter_article/in-praise-of-gratitude. Harvard Health Publishing, November 2011. Website. Accessed November 17, 2018.