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Well-Being & Understanding the ‘Happy’ in Happy Thanksgiving

November 29, 2013, 11:06 PM

Here is the big idea, according to the Gallup-Healthways Well-being Index Thanksgiving is one of the least stressful and happiest days of the year. Beyond good food – what about Thanksgiving makes us happy? Can we learn something about well-being from this single day in November and extend it to the other 364 days of the year?

The science of well-being gives us some clues. Family and friends may be capable of driving you crazy but they are also critical to keeping us whole. Gathered around the table or even as a drop in visitor the people that gather near at Thanksgiving represent much of our core social network. Our social network, the real friends we can count on, not just the virtual friends we can count online – are key to our overall well-being. Our friends keep us moving and engaged. For older adults in particular, friends and family are the people who drag us out when we might otherwise stagnate. They may also be critical to reinforcing healthy behaviors from eating well and exercising to taking our medications on time. For people of all ages our family and friends provide a sense of belonging and even meaning of where we fit in whatever small corner of the world in which we live.

Thanksgiving day is also a time to pause and inventory those things for which to give thanks. For many it is also a time to give. Making a meal for others, visiting a friend, or volunteering at a soup kitchen are all expressions of giving. And, giving pays back multifold – some studies suggest that volunteering may even extend your life as well as your quality of life. One examination of older adult volunteers showed that they had a 63% lower mortality rate than older non-volunteers.

By definition Thanksgiving is about tradition and ritual. Most of the year people must navigate the complexity of daily life that leaves many of us somewhere between confused and exhausted. Thanksgiving is clear. Ritual provides clarity – what to do, how and when. Even the parades and footballs games provide a common experience that can be shared across the generations and a day of predictability that provides relief from the many other stress-filled days.

Thanksgiving is one day a year – a day that brings together family and friends, an opportunity to give and a clarity that eludes many of us the rest of the year. Perhaps investing more time the rest of the year with family and friends, seeking opportunities to give back, and embracing daily rituals, no matter how small that provide moments of meaning in the middle of daily chaos can add to our happiness and improve our overall well-being. And, of course, good food can’t hurt either.


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