Your Brain at Work

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This Thanksgiving, Gobble Up the Goodness Without the Guilt

Don't let the turkeys get you down

As someone originally from outside the US (now living in NYC), thanksgiving is such an intriguing institution. On the one hand it is a wonderful event: an opportunity to reflect on your life and give thanks for what you have 'received' this year.

On the other hand, thanksgiving appears to be commercial event, nudging people into a buying frenzy - the turkey gluttony perhaps priming our impulse control to be set on 'low'. So what is thanksgiving, a time for reflection and gratitude, or a holiday away from self-regulation that ultimately makes our credit cards, waist lines and sense of guilt worse off?

The answer depends on what you focus on. We know from research that what we pay attention to grows in our awareness. When you hold an intention or goal in mind, data relating to that intention is given special processing priority. If you think the holiday is all about commercial interests, that's what you will notice. If you think it is about being grateful, you might notice other things around you.

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This all makes sense. However the trouble is, a lot of people, many millions in truth, are finding less to feel grateful about this year than ever before.

This brings up an intriguing question: given the whole country seems to take this time off, what should the nation focus on, if we want the holiday to be the most restful, rejuvenating, energizing and health-giving, given the mess we're in? After all, we could sure do with a morale boost around here, and the new plasma tv might be off the menu.

The answer may be to be thankful, sincerely thankful, for your family and friends. Yes, THAT family. As odd as it may sound, being thankful for your social support, the people you can call when you need help, may perhaps be the best way to spend thanksgiving. Why? Because the brain, it turns out, is deeply, deeply social, and a feeling of strong social connections appears to be extremely health-giving. Even life-giving.

A wide range of research has emerged just in the last few years highlighting how important social experiences are to our very well-being. Study show that our best and worst moments are social. We have the strongest emotions (both positive and negative) about social not solitary events. Want the best thanksgiving? Make it about connecting with your family and friends.

Why focus on your social interactions? The more you focus on social (hopefully the positive social stuff), the more you will be keenly aware of your social connections, and therefore feel rewarded (which is brain-speak for happy). And here's where the research really kicks in. This isn't just about improving your state of mind. Research shows that social isolation worsens health after cardiac arrest, and social rejection worsens inflammation.

Other studies show that you will sleep better if you're not feeling lonely, and literally live longer if you have more friends. We've learned that heavy drinkers outlive non drinkers, (probably because of the social benefits) and that positive social traits trump bad health habits. Social may even be the secret positive ingredient in religion.

All told, we now have a serious amount of research showing that positive social connections have a dramatic impact on not just our emotional but also our mental and even physical well-being.

This year, if you want thanksgiving to give you some authentic joy amidst the gloom, perhaps give thanks to the people around you. Pay attention to the people who matter, share your stories, your cares, your triumphs and tragedies over the year, and above all, show your support for one another. And if all that fails, or your family is as disfunctional as some may be, then remember the old saying: don't let the turkeys get you down.

Happy thanksgiving to all.

The 2013 NeuroLeadership Summit is going local with three days of events in three different locations. Click here for more information.  

David Rock is executive director of the NeuroLeadership Institute, and CEO of the NeuroLeadership Group, a global consulting firm.

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