The holidays are a time to reconnect with friends and family and to practice gratitude. As it turns out, these activities are directly related to strengthening our own mental and physical well-being – and make us happier.
Yale professor Laurie Santos received national attention for her course “Psychology and the Good Life,” which became the university’s most popular course, and is now available on Coursera. The course works, first, to dispel the notions of what we think will make us happy, like better jobs and more money (researchers have found that more money does correlate to greater well-being, but tops off at an annual income of around $75,000).
“Our minds are lying to us,” Santos says in a talk to the World Economic Forum. “Our minds are causing us to seek out stuff we think is going to make us happy but is not going to work.”
Instead, Santos says, science teaches us that social connections are critical for happiness. Yet we often shy away from them. “What’s the thing that separates very happy people from not so happy people?” she asks. “The amount of time they spend with people they care about.” And, she notes, even very short interactions with a stranger can drastically improve our moods. In one 2014 study, researchers asked riders on a train to either talk with a stranger during their commute or remain in solitude. Participants expected that riding in solitude would be a more positive experience, but the opposite was true. “This mistaken preference for solitude stems partly from underestimating others’ interest in connecting,” the researchers found, “which in turn keeps people from learning the actual consequences of social interaction.”
People who give back – through charity and volunteer work – are also happier, scientists have found. A study in which researchers gave participants money and told them they could spend it on themselves or on others found that people who spent it on others were measurably happier.
Thankful appreciation has measurable benefits as well. Research shows that people who practice gratitude for the things and people in their lives are happier, experience more positive emotions, have improved health, withstand adversity better, and have stronger relationships.
In addition to sharing what everyone is thankful for around the family table prior to indulging in a holiday feast, here are a few other ways to keep the gratitude (and health benefits) going: