11/26/2014 12:21 pm ET Updated Jan 26, 2015

5 Steps to a More Mindful Thanksgiving


As I repeatedly check to see how many inches of snow will arrive with "100-percent" certainty in New York City on Wednesday, I wonder about my flight status and consider how we all may benefit from a more mindful approach to holiday planning and celebrating.

Over the past few weeks, my clients and I have thought a lot about navigating family disappointments, anticipating loneliness, and making wise plans. To truly find thanks, we need to consider more than pumpkin pie recipes and holiday sales.

Who is the "happiest man in the world?" According to brain studies at the University of Wisconsin Madison, Matthieu Ricard, a Tibetan Monk, experiences profound levels of happiness. Practicing being in the present moment paves the way for joy and thanks.

If you feel stressed this Thanksgiving, there are ways to replace stressing and stuffing with effective awareness:

1. Circumvent worrying and start strategizing:

Instead of aimlessly worrying, ask yourself:

• What am I worried about?

• How can I cope well?

For example, if you know 48 hours with your in-laws will leave you dreading Thanksgiving for the next 364 days, think about ways to improve the situation-- maybe driving up for dinner and skipping the full weekend?

If you fear loneliness, can you reach out beyond your comfort zone to solidify plans?

You can create new traditions instead of finding yourself in a habit that hurts you.

A close friend of mine is moving on December 1st. This Thanksgiving, instead of woefully packing alone, she's having a couple of close friends over for a take-out and pack party. Let go of producing a picturesque plan and focus on what makes sense to you.

2. Gratitude isn't about good grub:

Our lives can't be limited to the fleeting delicacies on our plates. Brian Wansink, Ph.D, a food researcher at Cornell, studies factors that influence eating. In his book, Mindless Eating, he cites research on company and food intake. Interestingly. if you eat a meal with one other person, you will eat 35 percent more, in a group of four or more, 75 percent more, and in a group of seven or more you will eat 96 percent more than you'd eat alone. When we are around people, our attention is divided and we may move away from paying attention to our hunger or our portions. We may also continue eating beyond the point of feeling full as when others around us eat, it feels contagious to continue.

Take a moment to think about how you define a wonderful Thanksgiving. Is it all about stuffing? What deeply matters? If you're with others, bringing awareness to what you are thankful for will fulfill you more than a 3,000-calorie meal.

3. Let go of expectations and add kindness:

If you're focusing on wishes of better people in your life or better plans, instead of pondering decades of disappointment and dreading the "holiday," adopt a non-judgmental approach. Notice what is with a sense of flexibility and humor. For example, if your sister is serving her gluten free, sugar free, pecan dish, instead of gathering years of evidence that she is self-absorbed, notice her with kind eyes, as you would observe a painting for the first time. When we get muddied in judging, it's difficult to see beyond inaccurate conclusions.

In many mindfulness groups, a popular exercise is eating a raisin or washing dishes with your full attention in the moment -- noticing subtleties with a joyful curiosity -- what does a raisin feel like on your tongue? How does the warm water with bubbles graze your fingers? Often people reflect the taste of a raisin or the act of scrubbing feels more pleasant with heartfelt intention.

4. Get offline and into your life:

To quote Virginia Wolf, "It is far more difficult to murder a phantom than a reality." Instagram is not an instant dose of reality. Seeing others Pottery Barn catalogue worthy tablescapes may not boost your present joy. And being plugged in when you're with family that you infrequently visit leads to missed connections. Did you travel to be transfixed on something you carry incessantly? What is it like to put your phone down and pick your head up?

5. Keep your head where your feet land:

Relatedly, remembering past holidays with an ex or wishing you were somewhere else won't brew gratitude. Here you are right now. If your mind wanders to past sorrows or desires you can't fulfill in the moment, remind yourself, "This is where I am," in a tone of acceptance and warmth.

Thankfully, Ricard encourages, "Anyone can be happy by simply training their brain."