What if you put your sincere thanks into this Thanksgiving?  It’s not as easy as it sounds. By now we should all know that gratitude is a major driver of personal happiness and feelings of well-being. But the way our brains are designed tends to minimize the benefits of thankfulness. That’s because we constantly turn our positive emotions into concepts. And concepts do not make us feel happy. Let me explain… When we first experience positive emotions our brain stimulates the production of smile–and–be happy chemicals like dopamine and serotonin.

However, novelty is a huge driver of positive stimulation so as soon as we are used to something we were initially grateful for we quit feeling the emotion of gratitude. Without emotion-stimulating neurotransmitters our feelings of gratitude decay into concepts. We know we should feel happy or should feel love but we just don’t really feel those feelings. For instance if I ask someone I’m advising “What are you most grateful for?”

Their automatic response is almost always “my family.”  But when I ask them if seeing their family on a daily basis puts them in a positive mood I get a questioning look. Of course, families who have been separated for long periods of time, for instance military families, often experience elevated positive emotions when they’re reunited. But when life normalizes and we return to our routines those things we take for granted no longer give us a happy high.

That’s because unmet needs are powerfully motivating and very emotional. As soon as those needs are consistently satisfied our motivations and emotions tend to wither. Fortunately for us, positive psychologists have done a great deal of research about how we can rekindle the emotion of gratitude so that we can feel our feelings rather than just think about them. Here’s an experiment I’d like you to try:

  1. This Thanksgiving ask yourself… who is one person that has really enriched your life.
  2. Next take a few minutes and write down the specific ways you have benefited from the love, kindness, actions or knowledge this person has provided.
  3. Write down the positive impact and results you have received that you would not have gained without this person’s effort.
  4. Write down what your life would be missing without this person in your life.
  5. Now, listen to some calm instrumental music for about three minutes, put a smile on your face and silently (in your own mind) thank this individual. This focused reflection should ignite deep feelings of gratitude.
  6. Finally, tell the individual how thankful you are for the love and support they have shown you. Tell them some things that you were specifically grateful for and the impact it had on your life. You can do this in person or by phone. Actually, leaving a voice message is sometimes best because it will cause your loved one to really listen to your message of gratitude.

Research on gratitude confirms that people who express gratefulness create more internal feelings of well-being than people receiving the acknowledgment. In short, if you want to feel happy, share your gratitude for others with them in vivid detail. This has become an annual ritual for me and it has made the holiday much more significant than a few awesome football games, great food and time to relax.

It’s pretty simple… Thanksgiving should be the happiest day of the year… and it can be if we make it so. Happy Thanksgiving!