Express your gratitude this holiday season

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Eat real food. That’s the essence of today’s nutrition message. Our knowledge of nutrition has come full circle, back to eating food that is as close as possible to the way nature made it. Based on a solid foundation of current nutrition science, Harvard’s Special Health Report Healthy Eating: A guide to the new nutrition describes how to eat for optimum health.

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'Tis the season to be jolly! Yet for many people, the holidays can also be synonymous with stress. One way to make sure you experience the warmth of the season is to slow down and remember to acknowledge all the things and people in your life that make you feel grateful.

What is gratitude? Gratitude is a thankful appreciation for what you receive, whether tangible or intangible. With gratitude, you acknowledge the goodness in your life. And because, in the process, you recognize that the source of that goodness lies at least partially outside yourself, gratitude also helps you connect to something larger than your individual experience — whether to other people, nature, or a higher power.

In positive psychology research, gratitude is strongly and consistently associated with greater happiness. Gratitude helps people feel more positive emotions, relish positive experiences, have better health, deal with adversity, and build strong relationships.

As a signature strength, gratitude is felt and expressed in multiple ways. It can be applied to:

  • the past (retrieving positive memories and being thankful for elements of your childhood or past blessings)
  • the present (not taking things for granted as they come)
  • the future (being hopeful and optimistic that there will be good things arriving).

Studying gratitude

Robert Emmons of the University of California, Davis, and Mike McCullough of the University of Miami examined the impact of keeping a gratitude journal. All participants in their study were asked to write a few sentences each week, focusing on five things. One group wrote about things they were grateful for that had occurred during the week. A second group wrote about daily hassles or things that had displeased them, and the third wrote about events that had affected them (with no emphasis on them being positive or negative). After 10 weeks, those who wrote about gratitude were more optimistic and felt better about their lives. Surprisingly, they also exercised more and had fewer visits to physicians than those who focused on hassles.

Gratitude is a way to step off the hedonic treadmill, appreciating what you have instead of always reaching for something new in the hopes it will make you happier, or thinking you can't feel satisfied until your every physical and material need is met. Gratitude helps you refocus on what you have instead of what you lack.

Try keeping a gratitude journal and make it a habit to write down or share with a loved one the gifts you've received each day.

Counting your blessings
Events or moments of gratitude
Work Family or friends Nature Uplifting experiences Material comforts

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Cold and Flu
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Get your copy of Cold and Flu

Up to 20% of Americans get the flu every year, and Americans suffer one billion colds. Children get colds and the flu more often than adults. Some kids get as many as 12 colds a year, while adults average 2 to 4. The Harvard Medical School Guide: Cold and Flu will show you how to avoid getting colds and the flu, and, if you do get sick, what you can do to feel better.

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Do I need to get a flu vaccination this year?

Q. Now that the fuss over H1N1 swine flu has died down, do I need to get vaccinated this year?

A. You should, indeed, get vaccinated against the flu this year — and every year. That's because the viruses that cause influenza (the flu) and the vaccines against them change from year to year. The 2010 vaccine includes H1N1 and two other viruses likely to be widespread this flu season.

Infections of any kind, including the flu, can make breathing difficult, boost blood pressure, force the heart to beat faster, and rev up inflammation. A healthy heart usually weathers these changes without a problem; a damaged or weakened heart may not.

In 2010, everyone ages 6 months or older should get the flu vaccine. It is especially important if you

  • are over age 50
  • have heart disease, diabetes, immune problems, or other chronic conditions
  • live with or care for someone at high risk of getting the flu
  • come into contact with many people in a doctor's office, classroom, or other setting.

If you have heart disease, get the flu shot, not the nasal spray. The spray contains a live but disabled virus that isn't recommended for people over age 50 or those at high risk for complications of the flu.

Other vaccines recommended for adults include a vaccination against pneumonia once every five years beginning at age 65 and a single vaccination against herpes zoster (shingles) at age 60. If you didn't have measles or chickenpox as a child, or weren't vaccinated against them, it's a good idea to do that in adulthood, too.

— Thomas Lee, M.D.
Editor in Chief
Harvard Heart Letter