Thanksgiving is a day when just about everything BUT giving thanks is the focus. It celebrates everything ugly about American culture, as far as I’m concerned. A day which ironically is not about thanks, but all things American – ignoring other people to yell at the professional football players on TV; rampant gluttony for food and artificially cheap material goods, both of which strip our natural environment of value and sustainability; and our history of colonial imperialism in which we wiped out an indigenous people, never talked about it again, and pretended like we did them a favor. And we herald this as a day of gratitude!
Instead of gratitude we gorge ourselves on America’s favorite idols: television, shopping, and binge-eating. Do we really need another day to glorify these past times? A day to do nothing but zone out in front of the parade or a football game, a day to abandon our families (and a healthy sleep schedule) to stand in line for cheap electronics? A day to stuff our faces, and then take home the leftovers? We have turned Thanksgiving into Fat Tuesday. It’s a fine tradition, but let’s just not pretend it’s about gratitude, can we?
I love the idea of a day devoted to gratitude. Wouldn’t that be amazing? With all of the brain science out there on the importance of thankfulness, awe, even satisficing (accepting what you have instead of always looking to maximize every single experience) – it seems like a great idea. However, if we wanted to have a day about gratitude, is this what we’d design? Celebrating fake treaties, the NFL, Black Friday, and binge-eating? Back to the neuroscience I hinted at earlier. It’s amazing, The ways that our brains can adapt and change themselves.
Did you know that emotions can work from the outside in?! Seriously: smiling (even if you’re in a grumpy mood) will actually make you happier. You don’t even have to smile much – just holding a pen between your teeth will ‘trick’ your brain into thinking that it’s smiling, which will ‘trick’ your body/brain chemistry into making you happier.
There are also measurable effects of gratitude on the human body – not only can you increase momentary happiness and hormones within the body, but over time you can lower your cholesterol and slow down the body’s aging process. (If you need more convincing, check out this research from the Greater Good Science Center!) Do you know what this means? It means that it’s not happy people who are grateful, it is grateful people who are happy. It means we could create Thanksgiving traditions that actually made us more grateful. If you’re interested in changing your life – and this holiday – for the better, here are some places to start:
Many families have the tradition of going around the table and sharing something their grateful for
What a great practice! See if you can step it up this year to really talk about how it feels when you are grateful. Each person will share not only what they are grateful for, but what emotions and even body sensations that gratitude feels like! How that gratitude changes their day or their perspective. The goal is to dwell in that feeling and let that experience sink in.
Have everyone take time to write a gratitude letter.
(Or for younger children, draw a picture.) Write to someone who has had a significant impact on your life, and go into detail about why you are grateful for them and what they did. Tell them about how it made you feel and how it affected your life. If possible, present them with the letter in person, or if you’re feeling brave, make time to read your letter to your person! (Option: make it be about someone in the room, and then ask everyone to share together!)
Commit to a practice of gratitude journaling between your Thanksgiving gathering and you’re your Christmas gathering!
There are some great options: Have your family all sign up for http://thnx4.org/ – an online gratitude journal. Surprisingly, research has found that intermittent gratitude journaling is more effective than daily gratitude journaling! (The research doesn’t provide a conclusive reason…yet.) This is an online service that will prompt you to participate! Another option is to turn this into a craft opportunity, and have your family work together to make your own gratitude journals!
Spend time as a family writing a gratitude prayer,
Working from one in your tradition, or the voices of those gathered, to create a special meal-time blessing.
Talk about places in life where it is difficult to experience gratitude
Maybe it’s a difficult part of your job, a coworker (or kid on the playground!) that is challenging, maybe it’s doing chores or tasks you dislike… Have each person identify their ‘least grateful’ spot, and help each other brainstorm ways to work on gratitude in those moments. Be creative, be lighthearted, be playful as you imagine!
Don’t be afraid to do less
If these seem intimidating, start small! Like, turning off the TV for a while, engaging in meaningful conversation, telling the truth about family history, set the table with smaller plates to avoid over-eating, or include in your meal-blessing an acknowledgement of those who do not have enough to eat in our communities.
I LOVE that we can reverse-engineer happiness. (It’s one of the main reasons I love to teach yoga! But that’s another story.) What if we spent a whole day being positive influencers? Being those people who really cultivated gratitude? Who changed their brains for the better and became contagious with thankfulness? That’s a holiday I’d really like to celebrate. I’d be delighted if our country collectively took a day to stop for a minute and be mindful and grateful for the abundance that already surrounds us. A day to share with family and friends a gratitude practice. Don’t get me wrong I love a good football game and a successful shopping trip, but I don’t love that we call that Being Thankful. Let’s do better – let’s be better. Let’s be grateful together.