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Saturday, November 22, 2014

The Missing Ingredient in Thanksgiving

Gratitude: the cornerstone of happiness
Rather than allow that second piece of pumpkin pie to become my undoing, I boosted my feel-good serotonin levels without that lingering sugar-guilt trip aftermath.

Let me explain. Last week I wrote that exercise provides a little cushion around the holidays when you’re going to indulge. I put that strategy into action last Christmas morning with a killer body-weight workout in my sister’s basement in Connecticut.

Invigorated, I looked forward to a delicious feast that, yes, included some well-earned carbs. I partook in the lavish dinner and then enjoyed a piece of pumpkin pie. Realizing I had built in some serious dietary cushion thanks to my morning workout (plus that pie was sooo good), I decided a second sliver might be in order.

That’s when I had an epiphany. In my family and probably yours,
Thanksgiving revolves around food and perusing Black Friday sale circulars. Oh, sure, we love each other and enjoy being together, but something always feels missing when we’re so frantic to devour the next course or see what crazy sale Target will be having this year.

Gratitude is that missing link. “[G]ratitude is the appreciation of what is valuable and meaningful to oneself; it is a general state of thankfulness and/or appreciation,” write two medical doctors in a study appropriately titled “Gratitude and Well Being.” 

Instead of that second helping last Christmas, I opted for a short, thoughtful conversation with someone who had opened numerous doors for me over the years but whom I hadn’t truly ever thanked. I felt exuberant after that call, like I had restored the holiday’s meaning, and resolved to make gratitude a daily habit.

We pay lip service to gratitude, but how often do we really practice it? What better time to begin than Thanksgiving. Lest you think gratitude is some flighty, New Age-y idea and I’ve watched one too many Hallmark holiday movies, a ton of science validates gratitude for health, happiness, and wellbeing. In fact, a quick PubMed “gratitude” search yielded a whopping 660 studies.

To provide an example, one experiment involving three studies assigned participants one of three experimental conditions: hassles, gratitude listing, and either neutral life events or social comparison. These folks kept a journal either daily or weekly.

The gratitude-outlook group exhibited heightened wellbeing across several (but not all) outcome measures. “The effect on positive affect appeared to be the most robust finding,” researchers concluded. “Results suggest that a conscious focus on blessings may have emotional and interpersonal benefits.” 

Gratitude needn’t become awkward or overly sentimental. Taking just a few minutes on Thanksgiving to express gratitude makes you and the recipient feel better. It also guarantees, at least for a little bit, that you don’t go face down in the Apple Crostada with Brown Butter Streusel. Think of these five gratitude strategies as serotonin boosters without the pumpkin pie’s inevitable sugar crash.

1.      Write a letter to someone. In our fast-faster email/ texting age, nobody sits down and writes letters anymore. Years ago I went to a Jane Austen exhibit that showcased beautifully composed letters she wrote to family and friends. Revive that lost art while expressing how you feel to someone. I guarantee it will make the other person’s day and make you feel joyous.

2.     Call someone and tell that person what he or she means to you. A phone call bestows a personal immediate gratification that a text (while more convenient) could never capture. Maybe you had a workplace mentor who challenged you, a savvy aunt who taught you how to dress impeccably, or a sibling with whom you’ve become disconnected as you grew older. A five-minute phone call will lift both your spirits and truly put the “thanks” in the holiday.

3.     Start a gratitude journal. Maybe that third helping of cranberry-walnut stuffing left you in a food coma, and writing or calling someone sounds like Dante’s third level of hell. You can throw that same gratitude to the universe (it will bounce right back) by journaling, and what better day to begin one? It needn’t become elaborate or time consuming, though you’ll get back what you invest in it. Check out the 5 Minute Journal developed by UJ Ramdas and Alex Ikonn, also available as a handy app. 

4.     Forgive someone – even if that means you. Maybe you’re finally ready to let that past grudge with your mother-in-law go. You needn’t call her (though that might make her day); instead, find that forgiveness in your own heart. If you have nobody to forgive, forgive yourself and promise you’ll be more kind and compassionate. That self-nurturing will help you become kinder and more compassionate towards others. “People who reported greater levels of gratitude and forgiveness also tended to report less anger and subjective feelings of loneliness as well as fewer depressive symptoms,” researchers in one study wrote. “These same people also reported greater acceptance, empathy, and self-compassion.” 

5.     Intention your big goals and offer thanks for those that have come into fruition. My friend JJ Virgin uses intentioning, which is proof enough that it works. “Every morning, I write what I feel grateful for as well as my short- and long-term goals,” she says. “I call these ‘stretch goals’… Then I share these with others to gather support and stay positive as intentions become reality. My family is living proof intentioning works.” No kidding: Her son Grant was nearly killed by a hit-and-run driver in 2012. “I intentioned Grant being even better than before the accident, 110% improvement,” she writes. It worked. In the holiday spirit, I would add to reflect on what goals have materialized and offer God or the universe gratitude. 

This Thanksgiving, what will you give thanks for? It could be something lofty, life-changing, or just a daily gratification. Share your gratitude below or on my Facebook fan page.

Happy Thanksgiving, everyone!

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Fitness expert and strength coach Jini Cicero, CSCS, teaches intermediate exercisers how to blast through plateaus to create incredible transformations. Are you ready to take your fitness to a whole new level?  Find out now!  Take Jini's "Are you Ready?" Quiz at© 2014 Jinifit, Inc.

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