Thanksgiving is my favorite holiday. It may not have the cache of winter holidays or the Cash! Yay! of a birthday, but it is the best feel-good holiday of the year. At least it feels that way to me. But why is that? Of all the wonderful annual holidays, why would I prefer a single meal, shared with family, loved ones, and friends? Many of these holidays include similar meals. What makes Thanksgiving different?
The answer may be in what Thanksgiving lacks as much as in what it has.
But first let’s lay out what Thanksgiving brings to the table: the quintessential comfort food. One important piece of the neuroscience evidence on why feasts promote comfort is that hunger suppresses oxytocin production in the hypothalamus—the brain area responsible for monitoring and regulating your body's internal systems. Oxytocin, which is also known as the "love hormone", makes us feel comforted—it flows freely in mammals when we are being cared for by our mommies. In the mathematics of mammalian biology, mommies = comfort, so humans do not feel like they're home for the holidays until they're well fed. (We previously described the molecular details on the action of the hunger hormone ghrelin on AGRP neurons in the arcuate nucleus of the hypothalamus.)
But food cannot be the whole story or Thanksgiving would not be different from the other holiday feasts. So I suspect that Thanksgiving is so special because there is nothing else. No presents, no costumes, no fireworks. And, most importantly, none of the stress that comes with those other things (unless you’re the one doing the cooking, that is—if I was doing the cooking I may not feel so good about Thanksgiving). Oxytocin may promote the feeling of being loved and cared for, but stress is the enemy of well-being. So having a non-stressful feast, one that is not associated with stressful activities (no matter how fun those activities might be), may minimize stress hormones such as epinephrine and cortisol, thereby optimizing the comforting effects of the meal.
So is that it? A no-strings-attached feast? Well, another critical ingredient may be thankfulness itself. Psychologists have shown that gratitude decreases depression and reduces anxiety in patients with chronic pain.
Today I have so many things to be thankful for, including the fact that my mom is doing all the cooking.