Here’s Why Thanks and Giving Make You Feel Good

Posted by Dr. Rick Cohen on Nov 27th 2019

Did you even notice that Thanksgiving is two words. Thanks and Giving. And while there is much spiritual depth and benefit for community, there is a hard-wired physiological reason for why we feel good when we practice thanks and giving.

Here’s Why Thanks and Giving Make You Feel Good

Did you even notice that Thanksgiving is two words. Thanks and Giving. And while there is much spiritual depth and benefit for community, there is a hard-wired physiological reason for why we feel good when we practice thanks and giving.

It is because we stimulate our vagus nerve!.

The vagus nerve is one of the most important, yet least familiar, parts of the autonomic central nervous system. The word vagus is Latin and it means wandering, which is the perfect name for this long, meandering bundle of sensory and motor neurons that extend from the brainstem down to the neck, chest, and abdomen. As the largest nerve in the body, it connects the brainstem to all of the body’s major organs including the ears, eyes, tongue, kidneys, bladder, reproductive organs, stomach, and colon. It also plays a key role in mitigating the harmful effects of stress by activating the parasympathetic nervous response.

So here’s why it matters.

Life is hectic and demanding, however, the sympathetic (fight or flight) nervous system is activated with greater frequency than the parasympathetic (rest and digest). So it often dominates our reflexive stress response. It is possible, however, to stimulate the vagus nerve, strengthening its function along with the body’s ability to mitigate the harmful effects of stress. When you stimulate your vagus nerve you can relax more quickly after a stressful event due to the strength of their parasympathetic nervous response. And as a result, enjoy healthy digestion, a strong metabolism, and good overall mental and physical health.

There are a number of different ways to increase vagal tone. These include among others..:

  • Mindful breathing
  • Moderate Physical Activity
  • Yoga
  • Singing
  • Prayer
  • Massage
  • Laughter
  • Cold Exposure
  • Probiotics
  • And interestingly “Thanks” and “Giving” seem to be the most powerful..

Studies have shown that while meditation, deep breathing and yoga improve the function of the vagus nerve, they are significantly more effective when the process includes compassionate thoughts such as repeating phrases like “May you feel safe,” or “May you be happy”. It seems that the positive emotional effects of these activities are amplified when correlated with a greater sense of connectedness to others increasing our sense of joy, serenity, and compassion.

In addition, giving our time, attention, or resources to another also stimulates vagus nerve activity. 

Researchers believe that this branch of our nervous system evolved to reinforce our giving behavior with positive physical and psychological benefits as it likely played a role in guaranteeing the survival of our species.

So with Thanksgiving tomorrow I wanted to share a powerful way to stimulate your vagus nerve through gratitude. The health benefits of gratitude are broad and often begin with lowered stress, stronger relationships, and more energy. But how we practice this exercise, and make it part of our daily lives, is the dilemma.

Here are five observations about what gratitude is not and a few tips for training the muscle:

1. It is not about saying “Thank you.” Those words are so often said that we barely hear them. Gratitude is about a look directly into someone’s eyes, a little crinkle in the eye corners, and a real expression of thanks.

2. It does not have to be only about others. Of course, you are grateful when someone helps you out of a jam—but most of us don’t need to practice that feeling. Gratitude for what you have, who you are, and what you can do for the world is the first step in projecting appreciation for others. It’s also a critical step in living a productive life.

3. It is not about not being critical. A discerning mind with a push for excellence is what it takes to reject the status quo and improve the world. The key is to provide critical suggestions and helpful assistance while also enhancing other people’s views of themselves. Empowerment starts and ends with appreciation.

4. It is not about allowing yourself to be a victim. When you are taken advantage of because you need to keep a job, or resigned to the superficial stability of an abusive relationship, you are not practicing gratitude. This is compromise—or, worse, victimhood. In this case, gratitude must be part of your fortitude and confidence in your plans for escape.

5. It is not dependent upon being happy. Happiness is rarely constant; it fluctuates. So although happiness is a fantastic goal, gratitude for the tools that will get you there is more important.

So: How do we train the gratitude muscle so that gratitude is our dominant personal theme?

First of all, every day that you exercise your body—which should be at least 30 minutes per day, seven days a week—create a specific gratitude theme to focus on while exercising. Whether it is the bulging of your muscles, inhaling fresh air, or the sweat on your brow; focus on how proud you are to express your athleticism. Gratitude for our body’s remarkable physiology is available to us each day, yet is surprisingly neglected—or even demeaned.

Second, with the first breath you take in the morning, thank your lucky stars you have that breath. Then, for one minute, practice deep breathing into all three compartments of your lungs.Begin with the deep base by your diaphragm, then the middle of your chest. Finally, take three short topping-off breaths to fill the area above your clavicles. You will be surprised by how taking just 60 seconds to practice deep breathing before leaving your bed can be as effective as many other (often skipped) meditation practices.

Third, think with your brain and speak with your heart. We have been taught to be quick-tongued, with rapid cerebral responses to a wide variety of problems. The fast-talking, super-smart tech entrepreneurs of the digital world may have been the superstars of yesterday, but—because their brains ruled their worlds—they are objects of derision today. Unlimited free speech is admirable until it hurts someone. So think well, but speak from your heart, and you will find yourself practicing and expressing gratitude in all your interactions.

I wanted to truly thank you all for your support of PureClean Performance and allowing me to give by sharing with you information that you can improve your health, performance and enjoyment of life.