A New Way to Give Thanks: Happiness

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My Thanksgiving Day goal this year is simple: I want to be happy. It turns out that being happy is much more than just a feel-good pursuit; happiness improves health, longevity, relationships, and workplace success. Happier people are also more likely to volunteer and contribute to charity. People often assume that you must first be healthy and do good deeds in order to be happy. But studies indicate it usually happens in reverse: be happy so that you can be healthy and do good. If there’s still a part of you that believes being happy rather than constantly putting others first is selfish or wrong, I encourage you to reflect on this question posed by Portland-based life coach Amy Pearson: “What would your childhood have been like if your mom was always happy?” Personally, I am working on giving myself permission to be happy and to do what makes me happy – every day. Here’s what I’m planning specifically this Thanksgiving Day, which also happens to be my favorite holiday:
  • Get enough sleep the night before. Come Wednesday night, the little kid in me is going to think, “Woohoo, no school tomorrow!” and want to stay up late watching endless TV clips on Hulu – but I know I’d regret it the next day. You’ve probably heard about all those studies indicating how profoundly important sleeping well is to your health, weight, and mood.
  • Do some yoga. I’m often amazed by how much a single yoga class can shift my mood and perspective in a positive direction. Most yoga studios I know will have one class on Thanksgiving, usually with a gratitude-focused theme. Attuned exercise, where you’re mindful of your movements and connected to how your body feels, promotes wellbeing and a healthy relationship with food (in a way that exercise involving numbing or zoning out doesn’t). Other attuned exercise ideas are walking in nature, tai chi, qi gong and dance such as Nia.
  • Engage the senses to maximize pleasure. My fiancé Ben and I are hosting Thanksgiving for “misfits” like us this year (people who don’t have family in town). While I love to entertain, my tendency is to be preoccupied with how my guests are doing. This year, I still want to be a conscientious hostess, but I plan on paying extra attention to my own experience. That means engaging my senses to really take in the beautiful spread with my eyes, appreciating the delicious aromas during and after cooking, and really tasting each bite. Zen teacher Jan Chozen Bays, MD, author of Mindful Eating calls this satisfying your “eye hunger,” “nose hunger,” and “mouth hunger.” It’s a given I’ll be satisfying my “stomach hunger” – but only until I’m pleasantly full rather than painfully stuffed.
  • Take in the good. Brain research reveals that the brain is biased towards negativity; Neuropsychologist Rich Hanson, PhD says the brain is “Velcro for negative experiences, but Teflon for positive ones.” Hanson came up with the practice of “taking in the good,” which means noticing and truly allowing positive experiences to sink into your being. So when I notice something positive – like the look in Ben’s eyes when he tells me he loves me or the fun experience of cooking together – rather than letting the experience pass by before getting quickly distracted again, Hanson recommends softening and opening up to it for a bit longer, even ten or twenty seconds. A steady practice of “taking in the good” helps rewire the brain to overcome the negativity bias, allowing it to be happier, calmer, more confident and resilient over time.
May you have a very Happy Thanksgiving and holiday season! Minh-Hai Tran, MS, RD, CSSD is one of the co-founders of Zing bars, and the owner of Mindful Nutrition, a nutrition practice in Seattle specializing in Intuitive Eating, eating disorders, sports nutrition, and more. To learn more, check out her website at www.MindfulNutritionSeattle.com.