by Maria Reidelbach
Giving gifts is a way to help us all get through the dark, cold days of December, to bring some joy to a family member or friend. The act of giving makes us happy, too, and brain science has proven it.
If you read last month’s column you know I’m on a jag about Dr. Robert Lustig’s new book about the brain chemistry of happiness. He explains the physiological ways our brains make us feel good, differences among brain chemicals and the pathways they take. When we indulge in pleasures like shopping, drinking, gambling, sugar, racking up social media likes, and porn it creates excellent, though short lived, dopamine rushes.
An alternative way to feel good is a bit more subtle: hanging out with friends, cooking, volunteering to help others, practicing mindfulness, and taking care of ourselves generates serotonin and creates long-term contentment and serenity. Although both make us feel great, dopamine rushes can be addictive and overdoing it actually blocks serotonin receptors, making contentment impossible. Maintaining a balance is key!
In the spirit of the season, I’ve assembled a serotonin-boosting gift list guided by Lustig’s recommendations, the 4 Cs—with a little bit of the thrill of dopamine thrown in. Ho, ho ho!
Social contact has been shown to reduce stress, improve thought processes, and even increase life span. Social media is often just the opposite, juiced up with “likes” and “streaks” to create competition and cheap thrills. It’s real social engagement that counts.
A deck of cards: card games combine the thrill of gaming with the coziness of hanging with pals, and there are so many beautiful and fun decks to choose from. The Cooper Hewitt Museum gift shop has a collection that includes a rainbow deck with each card in a different color. Discover a gazillion card games to play at Pagat.com.
Denny Dillon’s Improv class: create spontaneous characters and spin tales out of air on the wild and laugh-filled ride called improvisation. SNL alum and actress Dillon teaches classes in the Old Dutch Church in Kingston, acting experience not required. I took it last year and loved it. Contact email@example.com.
Social Dance classes: believe it or not, these are great for shy folks and singles, because they’re structured to be friendly and fun. One of my favorites is Uptown Swing at BSP in Kingston; Emily Vail is a delightful and kind teacher. Contact firstname.lastname@example.org. Hudson Valley Dance has a website with links to many other types of dance classes: hudsonvalleydance.org.
Vanaver Caravan kids’ dance class: this multi-culti dance group collaborates with wonderful local musicians; they’ve got classes all around the Mid-Hudson area for children and teens. VanaverCaravan.org.
Local library membership: our public libraries are so much more than collections of books! Most host a variety of groups from mystery lovers meetups to game nights to knitting circles and writer’s groups.
Feeling that our lives are about more than just personal survival is important to well being, and contributing to a cause greater than ourselves elevates us. And let’s face it, lots of us already have all the material stuff we need.
Rosendale Theatre: a wonderful community theater—and membership includes a discount on tickets! Go to RosendaleTheatre.org.
The Sketchbook Project: contribute to a giant art piece organized by the Brooklyn Art Museum. Get their blank sketchbook, send it in when filled—it will be archived and accessible in the museum’s library. BrooklynArtLibrary.com/sbp.
Act Now! Protest postcards: a box of 50 cards for activist friends. Chronical Books.
Local nonprofit groups: donating to an organization that your loved one cares about is a great way to celebrate. Google by county for lists of local nonprofits. My own favorites: the Hudson River Sloop Clearwater in Beacon, a floating environmental education resource; Seed Song Foundation in Kingston, farm-based education; the Rondout Valley Growers Association, farmers and neighbors working together to keep farming strong (and on whose board I serve); the Center 4 Creative Education, a vibrant Kingston-based youth-arts group; and the Mill Street Loft + Spark Media Project, teaching kids filmaking and journalism.
Sleep, mindfulness, and exercise are the fertile ground on which happiness grows. Our area is rich with well being resources.
Mindfulness retreat at Omega Institute: this 40-year-old Rhinebeck nonprofit offers hundreds of programs. You’re sure to find just the right practice for your loved one—or give a gift certificate.
Botanical Drawing class: artist Wendy Hollender teaches botanical drawing all over the world, but her home base is Hollengold Farm in Accord. Drawing is great way to slow down and focus. DrawingInColor.com.
The Naturalist’s Notebook: an interactive instructional and 5 year calendar for observing and noting the natural world. Focus on birds, insects, plants or, my choice, fungus! By acclaimed scientist Nathaniel T. Wheelwright and biologist and artist Bernd Heinrich. Storey Publishing.
Sleeping potions: cozy pillows, blankies, pajamas, slippers and bedtime teas are all great ways to encourage getting those crucial eight hours of snooze time.
According to Lustig, cooking is the number one way to create happiness! Processed food is chock full of added sugar, a dopamine supercharger, as well as other triggers that food engineers create to be irresistible. It’s sad that so many of us never learned to cook, since it’s incredibly fun and delicious. There are some great ways to learn.
Nourishing Wisdom Cooking class: Holly Shelowitz is super informed (she created nutrition programs for Whole Foods), focused on both sensual pleasures and nutrition. She’s patient and great company in the kitchen. NourishingWisdom.com.
The Wildcrafted Cocktail: a fantastic book by Ellen Zachos about creating drinks with foraged and locally grown botanicals made into inventive syrups, bitters, infusions and garnishes. Storey Publishing.
Make edible gifts: holiday cookies, crackers, breads, flavored salts—Google “edible gifts diy” for ideas.
Mail order meal kits: fun, especially in winter when farmers markets are limited. They contain just the right amounts of ingredients and easy instructions. Blue Apron sources some produce locally, Plated has gourmet offerings, Sun Basket and Green Chef have lots of organic ingredients, Purple Carrot is vegetarian. Coordinate delivery with your recipient.
Cooking Class kids’ cookbook: this beautifully designed, spiral-bound book by Deanna F. Cook is a great introduction for kids (and adults can learn a thing or two, as well!). Included are stickers, game cards and more. The companion Baking Class is also excellent. Storey Publishing.
Maria Reidelbach is an author, artist and local food activists who lives, works and celebrates in Accord, New York. Reach her at email@example.com