5 Steps to Enhance Quality of Connection With Yourself & Others During the Holidays & New Year

Thank you for joining the Huberman Lab Podcast Neural Network—a once-a-month newsletter with science and science-related tools for everyday life. My goal with this newsletter is to provide you with some actionable information in condensed form. It relates to two recent episodes of the Huberman Lab Podcast: one on the science of gratitude and another on the science of social bonding (in relationships of all kinds). 

While much has been said before about the science of gratitude and its benefits, most of what I see “out there” is not accurate to what the science shows. What is clear is that specific gratitude practices can be immensely beneficial for us. For example, an effective gratitude practice can:

  1. Reduce the activation of fear and anxiety circuits in the brain and body.
  2. Improve mood, focus and sleep.
  3. Reduce biomarkers of inflammation. (When combined with tools for enhancing social bonding, the positive effects are even greater.)

For these reasons, and because the holidays and New Year are upon us and have us navigating social interactions, I have assembled a list of five steps to enhance the quality of connection with yourself and others during the holidays and the new year.

1. Get Thanks

That’s right. Get thanks. Neuroimaging, EEG (brain electrical recording) and psychology studies show that the positive effects of a gratitude practice primarily occur when we receive, not when we give, gratitude. Of course, for that to happen, someone has to give gratitude, but merely writing out gratitude lists or counting our blessings—while useful, pale in comparison to receiving gratitude. Thus, give gratitude and encourage those receiving it to really hear you. Hopefully, someone in your life (perhaps many people) will genuinely thank you too. 

2. Make it Genuine

In the science of gratitude podcast episode, I discussed a study showing that the genuine intention of the gratitude giver (the thanker), has a direct impact on the degree of positive effect felt by the person receiving the gratitude (the thankee). So give thanks, but do so with honesty. It matters.

3. Observe/Recall Others Giving & Receiving Genuine Thanks

Neuroimaging studies from Antonio Damasio‘s Lab show that observing or hearing the stories of others receiving help (or thanks) activates pro-social circuits that improve our mood and other health metrics. We are wired for social interactions and are wired to gauge the emotional state of others. Hence, billions of viral Instagram and Twitter posts of people helping each other, people helping dogs or other animals stuck in drainage ditches, even dogs helping people stuck in drainage ditches, etc. It’s not by chance these posts are so popular. As the psychologist and neuroscientist Dr. Lisa Feldman Barrett, says: we regulate each other’s nervous systems. Having a story you can recall in which someone received genuine gratitude is beneficial. Recall that story 1-3 times per week. Once it’s embedded in your memory, you don’t have to recall it in great detail to receive the benefits. 

4. Introversion & Extroversion Reflect Social Homeostasis

We have brain circuits that drive a “social hunger” – an appetite for finding and reinforcing social bonds, and the release of the neurochemical dopamine from a special brain location (called the dorsal raphe nucleus; DRN) is involved in that drive. Studies on introverts and extroverts suggest that introverts like social interaction but are socially satisfied faster than are extroverts. This makes sense, based potential differences in the amount of dopamine they release from the DRN in response to social interactions. Don’t assume that introverts are quiet and that extroverts talk a lot. That can be true, but just as often, it is simply that introverts experience more dopamine release from less social interaction and thus are satisfied earlier. The takeaway is to offer (or take) opportunities to exit social interactions early and not feel guilty about it or take offense. The extroverts can keep at it until they get the DRN/dopamine they need. If anyone gets offended when you say, “all full… I’m ready to go”, feel free to cite me.

5. Merge Physiologies

Elegant studies done earlier this year show that when people hear a story, their hearts begin to beat in a similar way even if they are not in the same room as one another. This is remarkable and holds up even for people with very different backgrounds and lives. Other studies point to the fact that when people have similar physiological experiences, they forever feel closer, which is familiar to many of us. Oxytocin (a hormone) appears to be involved. Narrative drives common physiological responses, which are powerful glue for relationship building of all kinds. The takeaway: Build social bonds by hearing, watching or sharing stories. Everyone being on their individual phones is not the way to do that. Watching movies, hearing someone tell stories, playing or listening to music, etc. are all excellent paths to this. Do those things together.

BONUS (REMINDER): Keep your wellbeing baseline high during the holidays. View morning sunlight, avoid bright lights (most) nights between 10 p.m. and 4 a.m. and practice Non-Sleep Deep Rest (NSDR) so you can maintain strength for yourself, and show up strong to everything you’re doing. See Newsletter #1 (Toolkit for Sleep) for details.

The references and details behind these practices and points are covered in the two Huberman Lab Podcast episodes mentioned above. The Huberman Lab Podcast episodes are out each Monday on YouTubeApple PodcastsSpotify and other major podcast platforms. Please subscribe to those channels. We also launched a clips channel, where we’ll post short segments from the episodes. I post additional science and science-based tools on InstagramTwitter and Facebook

If you’d like to learn more about the research my lab is doing at Stanford and help support our research, you can visit our Stanford lab website.

Thank you for your interest in science,

Disclaimer: The Huberman Lab podcast is for general informational purposes only and does not constitute the practice of medicine, nursing or other professional health care services, including the giving of medical advice, and no doctor/patient relationship is formed. The use of information on this podcast or materials linked from this podcast is at the user’s own risk. The content of this podcast is not intended to be a substitute for professional medical advice, diagnosis, or treatment. Users should not disregard or delay in obtaining medical advice for any medical condition they may have and should seek the assistance of their health care professionals for any such conditions.