Holiday training: How to get your brain ready for the “Happiest Time of the Year”

This time of year, “Christmas spirit” is everywhere you look. And as a collective aspiration for benevolence toward and from our fellow men and women, it can be beautiful indeed.

That’s not to say the holidays are all sunshine and mistletoe. It’s also rife with opportunities for sadness— with the high expectations, hectic schedules, and maybe even reminders of long-gone, happier holidays in years past. Even the gatherings of loved ones can tax us in ways we may not anticipate. Whether it’s the in-law who can’t get off his or her soapbox or the granddaughter who’s too focused on her “smart” phone to even notice you’ve arrived, it’s easy to feel disconnected this time of year.

But there’s good news in that our ability to connect with others is something we can improve. Like a muscle that gets stronger with exercise, our benevolence toward others increases the more we interact with others. And recent research gives us a concrete way to “train” for the connection-marathon that the holidays often prove to be.

First, ditch the techno-gadgets

Back to that granddaughter who just can’t seem to look up from her phone. She may be taking it to an altogether new level, but you’ve probably noticed that many of us, across the generations, are spending more time staring at small screens these days. And this technology craze comes at a price: By remaining “connected” all the time with these devices, we’re losing our ability to connect with one another.

That’s because our brains are shaped by experiences. So when our brains are only given opportunities to find gratification from screens, they forget how to find it from people.

Of course, if the brain can be rewired once, it can be done again. And a new study shows that the age- old practice of meditation can do just that.

Cultivating kindness

A recent study plucked people from their everyday technology addictions and enrolled them in a workshop on a mindfulness meditation known as “metta,” or “loving-kindness” meditation (see below).1 After six weeks, the meditators improved their outlook and felt more connected to others. Not only that, but their physical health benefited as well.

The researchers looked at participants’ vagal tone, which refers to the health of the vagus nerve.

The vagus nerve plays a key part in regulating our major bodily functions, including breathing, heart rate, and digestion. It’s also responsible for helping us deal with stress.

So people with better vagal tone typically respond better to stressful events.

The vagus nerve isn’t only responsible for organ systems; it also is essential for social interactions: It helps us control our facial expressions and tune into others’ voices. When we improve our vagal tone, we increase our capacity for connection, friendship and empathy. These powerful effects even have the ability to regulate our genes, turning them on or off.

I’ve written before about the new “gene science,” which has yet to yield new “miracle” genetic cures for common diseases. However, it has revealed a wealth of information about how mind- body approaches and natural therapies actually work in the body. In fact, in a past issue of my Daily Dispatch Relaxation—it’s in your genes,” (7/1/13) I reported on how relaxation therapy regulates genes that have healthy effects on blood pressure.

Other research on loving- kindness meditation has shown it reduces symptoms of post-traumatic stress and depression, and it’s even being studied in connection with improving longevity.2,3

As you’re gearing up for this holiday season, scratch another new iPod off the list and add this instead: Meditate more. Even if it’s just five minutes a day, taking time to slow down and offer your benevolent wishes to yourself and those around you can make a difference. And not only for those potentially tense holiday dinner gatherings, but for your health as well.


Your step-by-step guide to a happier holiday season

Try to make Loving-Kindness a part of your everyday routine. Here’s how to start.

1.   Sit in a comfortable position with your eyes closed. Take a few deep breaths.

2.   Think of what you want for your life. Is it health? Peace? Love? Hold that thought.

3.   Repeat to yourself silently, “May I be healthy (or happy, or peaceful, etc.).” If your mind wanders, gently bring it back to your wish for yourself.

4.   Picture someone you care about. Repeat the same phrase for that person, while holding his or her image in your mind: “May you be healthy.”

5.   Now picture someone you don’t have any feelings about—maybe the person who was in front of you in line at the coffee shop this morning—and direct the wish to him or her.

6.   Think of someone you have negative feelings toward (the obnoxious in-law you’ll be sharing Christmas dinner with, or a boss or co-worker you are sure to encounter at a holiday affair) and direct the wish toward him or her.

7.   Now direct the wish toward the whole world: “May everyone, everywhere be happy (or healthy, or peaceful, etc.).”

8.   Slowly open your eyes and return to your day, keeping this expansive feeling of benevolence with you.


It’s the most personal time of the year

Different people “feel their feelings”—and face holiday stress—in their own ways. And thus, are susceptible to different disorders.  Along the same lines, different complementary and alternative therapies work better for some people than other therapies do. This fact has to do with what I call one’s “emotional type.” To find out yours, take the simple quiz. For a more complete assessment and explanation of what your emotional type means for your health, my book Your Emotional Type is also available.


1. Kok BE, Coffey KA, Cohn MA, et al. How positive emotions build physical health: Perceived positive social connections account for the upward spiral between positive emotions and vagal tone. Psychological Science. 2013;24(1123-1132).

2. Kearney DJ, Malte CA, McManus C, Martinez ME, Felleman B, Simpson TL. Loving-kindness meditation for posttraumatic stress disorder: a pilot study. J Trauma Stress. 2013;26(4):426-434.

3. Hoge EA, Chen MM, Orr E, et al. Loving-Kindness Meditation practice associated with longer telomeres in women. Brain Behav Immun. 2013;32:159-163.