Rewire your brain to enjoy the “Most Wonderful Time of the Year”

Some say the holidays are the “most wonderful time of year.” But, in reality, the holidays aren’t 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, with loved ones who are no longer with us, 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…

Our ability to connect with others is something we can improve. Like a muscle that gets stronger with exercise, our benevolence towards others increases the more we interact with others. And recent research gives us a concrete way to “train” for the social connection-marathon that the holidays often prove to be.

First, ditch the techno-gadgets

Back to that daughter or granddaughter who just can’t seem to look up from her hand-held device. She may be taking it to an altogether new level, but you’ve probably noticed that many of us spend more time than ever staring at ever smaller screens.

This technology craze comes at a price. By remaining “connected” all the time with these devices, we lose our ability to connect with one another.

Plus, when our brains are only given opportunities to find gratification from artificial screens, we forget how to find it from people, or from Nature.

Fortunately, a new study shows that the age-old practice of meditation can rewire the brain to help us reconnect in meaningful ways to the living world around us.

Cultivate 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. After six weeks, the meditators improved their outlook and felt more connected to others. Not only that, but their physical health benefitted 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. I told you more about the vagus, or “wanderer,” nerve last month.

The vagus nerve isn’t just 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 can even regulate some of our genes, turning them on or off.

I’ve written before about the failures of gene therapy, which has yet to yield the promised new “miracle” cures for common diseases. However, it has revealed a wealth of information about how mind-body approaches and natural and nutritional therapies actually do work in the body. In fact, in the July 2013 issue of my Insiders’ Cures newsletter, I reported on how relaxation therapy regulates genes that have healthy effects on blood pressure. (If you’re a subscriber to my newsletter, you can look up this archived issue on my website,, with your username and password. If you’re not yet a subscriber, now is the perfect time to get started.

Other research shows loving-kindness meditation reduces post-traumatic stress, depression and possibly even improves longevity.

So — as you gear up for this holiday season, scratch another new iPad off the list and add this instead: Meditate more. Even if it’s just five minutes a day, take time to slow down and offer your benevolent wishes to yourself and those around you. It can make a difference for those potentially tense holiday dinner gatherings and for your health as well.

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

Try to make loving-kindness meditation 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, or the barista, 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.

I think you’ll find that when you regularly practice loving-kindness meditation, every day of the year is the most wonderful time of year.