Kitchener-Waterloo·Happiness Column

How to keep the 'thanks' in Thanksgiving when you're not feeling thankful

It may be hard to feel thankful right now. But Thanksgiving has been proven to combat the stress that comes with it because of how much gratitude is infused into its traditions, writes happiness columnist Jennifer Moss.

It may be hard to feel thankful right now, but continuing to practice gratitude will help

There are a number of ways you can show you're thankful for someone, although maybe get permission before doing a mural, like this one on Yonge Street in Toronto from this past spring. (Christopher Mulligan/CBC)

Like so many other holidays throughout 2020, Thanksgiving will be celebrated with the pandemic on everyone's mind.

Normally we would be looking forward to celebrating with friends and family — all coming together to eat way too much food and say thanks. With our new reality of smaller indoor gatherings, this year may look quite a bit different for some.

And yet, that doesn't mean we should let go of those important traditions we need now more than ever. 

Compared to how many people traveled last year, this year shows a dramatic shift. Last year was a boom year with more flights booked than the airline industry had seen in years. This year, if any of us travel, it will likely be on foot as we walk off the turkey-induced coma. 

But the biggest change we may experience is how "un-celebratory" this holiday feels. This has been such a stressful year and we're still grieving.

Simply put, it may be hard to feel thankful right now. But Thanksgiving has been shown to combat the stress that comes with it because of how much gratitude is infused into its traditions. Meaning: if we still practice gratitude for the holiday  weekend, there's still hope for this Thanksgiving. 

Day-specific

When Thanksgiving was first celebrated, it was customary to be thankful for our blessings and to say a thankful prayer as part of that ritual. As our world evolved, that tradition still held on. And despite all the movies and TV shows that depict holidays as super stressful, where families all gather around to yell at each other, a paper published in The Journal of Positive Psychology showed that thankfulness on this specific day is good for our well-being. 

Researchers followed 172 college students for the three weeks around Thanksgiving, tracking gratitude, positive affect and life satisfaction through diary-style entries. Researchers saw a significant bump in both gratitude and positive affect on Thanksgiving Day specifically. And yes — they tracked it back to the actual day. 

Subjects were controlled for gratitude, and without the infusion of practicing gratitude specifically on Thanksgiving Day, life satisfaction and "meaning in life" plummeted. 

Stress factors

Thanksgiving is filled with stressful factors, whether it's travel, family conflicts, or cooking, but that act of engaging in the tradition of gratitude changed the experience from negative to positive for the subjects. This is an example of when the good outweighs the bad. 

Another study monitored Twitter shopping tweets during Black Friday and they were dwarfed by general gratitude tweets and more importantly during peak dinner hours there were almost no shopping tweets at all, even while global traffic spiked.

Another study from Indiana University monitored Twitter for changes in mood during various holidays and on U.S. Thanksgiving, the researchers saw a huge uptick in tweets that demonstrated a general sense of energy and enthusiasm. The measure leapt more than four standard deviations above the norm — in laymen terms — this means people were pumped to be celebrating Thanksgiving.

Why we love Thanksgiving

Regardless of the potential for stress, most people would agree that a holiday centred around food is a great way to spend the day. Another factor is the fairly low expectation attached to it — there aren't gifts and expensive major outlays. 

Also, there's a bonding that comes from cooking with others. The act of preparing food together is great for our well-being and teaches children about the food they're eating in a positive way. It also provides time — in a busy and stressful time — to reconnect with kids and teens. Plus, it's secular. People from every walk of life can celebrate it. 

And whether consciously or subconsciously, we see Thanksgiving as kick-starting the holiday season — the first in a series of positive events to come. 

Send a note to a friend or family member offering gratitude to them. It will make both them and you feel great. (Kate Bueckert/CBC)

Ways to keep Thanksgiving going

So, here are a few examples of what you and your family and/or friends can do to keep the Thanksgiving traditions going this year.

But first, I need to note that these activities should be done at dessert or before dinner is served so no food gets harmed in the making of these new traditions. It's hard to be grateful with cold turkey on the table. 

  1. Ask everyone at the meal to share what they are grateful for about 2020. (There has to be at least one thing!)
  2. Say one or two sentences about why you're grateful for the person to your right (or left — it doesn't matter.) 
  3. Ask kids what makes them smile (the stuff they list off is unbearably cute.)
  4. Have everyone list many things that they feel grateful for and put them in a jar. Then go around the table picking them out and taking turns reading them. Use crayons and markers so adults can feel it's more like playing — science shows using crayons and art supplies can trigger warm feelings of nostalgia. 
  5. With this year's distancing and restricted visiting, have everyone write a thank you letter (or two) to people who couldn't be there this year. Have stamps ready and go for a walk to the mailbox after dinner so you know they've been sent. 
  6. As you know, I strongly believe that altruism is the best antidote to all this stress, so if you can safely support a local group that helps people who are homeless — ask them first how you can help — or gather food to take to a local food bank, or help someone in your community you know is struggling. That is the best way to give thanks. 

Finally, I just want everyone to know that these traditions don't have to just start and end on one single day of the year. We should be practicing these rituals way more regularly.

Make a Friday dinner a "Gratitude Dinner" where you share your thank-yous. Ask your kids every day at dinnertime what made them smile today.

During these intensely stressful times, a moment to reflect on anything good — even if everything else feels like it's falling apart — will play a role in helping us keep going. 

About the Author

Jennifer Moss

CBC Happiness and Well-being Columnist

Jennifer Moss is an international public speaker, award-winning author, and UN Global Happiness Committee Member.

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