10 Paths to a Grateful Thanksgiving

This post is a Tuesday Tip related to: Looking for Thanksgiving in All the Wrong Places

no one to help

Photo Credit: miguel dagz (Creative Commons)

Good things happen to good people, and bad things happen to bad people, right?

Wrong.

Social psychologists refer to this cognitive error as the “just-world hypothesis.” Few of us would claim to think in this way, yet most of us have a bias toward viewing the world as an orderly equation. This bias is, of course, harmful to people who are suffering misfortune, because we assume they did something wrong to “deserve” their predicament.

But I think the error may be equally harmful to those of us experiencing good fortune.

Because whatever good fortune we experience is, for the most part, a roll of the cosmic dice—although we convince ourselves we have earned it and deserve it. But did we do anything to earn being born into a family with a house rather than a homeless one? We pretend that we “make our own luck,” but how does that fallacy hold together when the accident happens or the diagnosis is delivered or your job position is terminated?

We can do absolutely nothing to earn and secure the things by which we feel most blessed.

This reality can be either the birthplace of depression, or of gratitude.

We do have a choice in that.

If we can receive all of life as a gift—a tenuous blessing which we have not earned and that we cannot possess but for which we are absolutely worthy when we are in the midst of it—we will begin to feel the joy and peace of authentic gratitude welling up within us. But how do we find this place of gratitude in our souls?

Perhaps we can learn a lesson from happiness research. Studies have shown that when participants are instructed to “fake smile,” they actually become happier. Apparently, showing the “symptoms” of happiness gives birth to the experience itself. Maybe gratitude works the same way. If we could experience the symptoms of gratitude, perhaps we would give birth to gratitude itself.

And a hallmark symptom of gratitude is giving.

If we engaged in gift-giving, we might discover ourselves in the midst of thanks-giving. It’s not too late to give a gift of grace before this Thanksgiving holidays arrives. There are opportunities everywhere:

  1. Give a smile. To someone who hasn’t earned it—a grumpy cashier, a nagging relative, a cranky child, an insufferable co-worker.
  2. Give your words. You know that person you always feel grateful for, but you don’t have the kind of relationship where that kind of gratitude is expressed? Do it. Call them, email them, text them. Let them know you appreciate them.
  3. Give a hug. Words are one thing, but have you ever been wrapped in a big warm hug? Better yet, have you ever been wrapped in that kind of hug for no reason whatsoever? That is, as we say in our house, “the good stuff.”
  4. Give a card. My family has a Thanksgiving tradition. During the Macy’s Thanksgiving Day Parade, we sit down and make gratitude cards—expressions of our appreciation for those who live near us. And then we travel the neighborhood leaving them on doorsteps.
  5. Give your attention. In a distracted world, our attention is an invaluable gift. We reserve most of it for ourselves and for those closest to us. Perhaps you could give some of yours away to someone who wouldn’t normally get it.
  6. Give your resources. Give your money. A fraction of what we spend on a typical Thanksgiving dinner could feed a family half a world away for a month. Cut the cranberry sauce this year and give a financial gift to someone you will never meet.
  7. Give your space. Open your home up to others. For coffee or dinner or simply a time of conversation. Give hospitality.
  8. Give your service. I dare you to serve a Thanksgiving dinner at a homeless shelter and not feel grateful. And I don’t mean grateful that you get to go home to a warm house and a big dinner. I mean you will experience gratitude for the very opportunity to serve, for the experience itself.
  9. Give forgiveness. By definition, forgiveness is not earned. If it could be earned, it wouldn’t be needed. You’ve got a grudge your nursing. We all do. Forgive. Freely and gracefully.
  10. Give a gift. (Like an eBook) I’ve told people that I’m giving away my eBook to everyone on my mailing list. They think I’m crazy. eBooks are meant to entice new subscribers, not to be given away to people who are already “in.” But isn’t that truly a gift of gratitude: giving a gift that the other need do nothing more to earn? You may not have an eBook, but I bet you have something you can give away, for absolutely no good reason. It’s crazy, but crazy and grateful beats sane and ungrateful any day.  

As we approach this day of Thanksgiving, may we find a place of authentic gratitude inside of us. May this Thanksgiving be not a celebration of good things, but may our celebration—our thanks-giving—be the good thing itself.

QUESTION: Have you ever given something away and found yourself more grateful? Share your experience in the comments

Kelly is a licensed clinical psychologist and co-founder of Artisan Clinical Associates in Naperville, IL. He is also a writer and blogs regularly about the redemption of our personal, relational, and communal lives. Kelly is married, has three children, and enjoys learning from them how to be a kid again. You can find him on Facebook, Twitter, and Google+.

Please note: I reserve the right to delete comments that are offensive or off-topic.

  • Susabella

    Beautiful post, Kelly! I found myself smiling and saying “YES!” as I read through the list of ways to give. Thank you.

    • drkellyflanagan

      Thank you, Susabella!

  • Clara W.

    I am a teammate of the Leukemia and Lymphoma Society’s Team in Training, and I am currently training for a half marathon scheduled in January 2013. As I (and my teammates, together and individually) raise funds for the organization, I find myself being more grateful each day, and in feeling that I want to give even more – simply because I can. Most of the time I am grateful reflecting about what I have, no matter how little, or how transient. But these thoughts of gratuity towards what I have are also mixed with gratuity for life itself, that life is full of ups and downs, and that all I can do is give when I can and where I can. In doing this I realise that I also become more conscious in receiving love from other people in one form or another. So the good-stuff cycle goes on! Thanks Kelly for your regular postings – great food for thought each and every single time.

    • drkellyflanagan

      I like that: “the good-stuff cycle”! Thanks for reading, Clara, and blessings as you and your team support such a worthy cause.

  • Jennifer Newell

    Our family goes to serve dinner at a Christian Men’s Drug and Rehab center on Thanksgiving. It is one of the few times they get to see there family. It is alot of fun to see the smiles on their faces and to get a chance to hear all they have struggled to get through. Over the years we have gotten more than we have given. Hearing the testimonies of many men touches your heart and helps you to understand that drugs/alcohol is something that happens in all walks of life.
    I learned that Thanksgiving is not on a certain day it is whenever you can gather around with your family and take the time to count your blessings. WE will have our family thanksgiving on Friday.
    Love your list of things..some are harder than others. Have a Blessed holiday and thanks for sharing.

    • drkellyflanagan

      Thank you for this, Jennifer. When gifts of service like yours are given, it truly does become hard to distinguish the giver from the receiver. Blessings as you spend the day with the men and on Friday with your family!

  • Kortney

    I read number 9 and felt like you wrote that specifically to me (obviously you didn’t). I need to give forgiveness to my sister-in-law for my husband’s sake. But I don’t feel like she “deserves” it, she certainly hasn’t asked for it and she ALWAYS plays the victim. And…I don’t feel like wasting my time on a 1-sided friendship.
    So how do you forgive when you know it’s just going to come back to bite you in the hiney?

    • drkellyflanagan

      Thanks for sharing this, Kortney. Forgiveness is such a complicated topic. In fact, I had a post half-written a while back and after getting a ton of great, complex feedback on the Facebook page, I put it aside and still haven’t come back to it. But I think I can say a couple of things that might help. First, forgiveness can be something we do for ourselves. I like this way of saying it, “What you did mattered, it was wrong, and I release you.” In other words, as long as we don’t forgive, the consequences of the behavior affect us through our own anger and hurt. Releasing the other also releases us. Second, forgiveness and reconciliation are not the same thing. You may be able to forgive your sister without having to keep trying to maintain a relationship that isn’t working. And third, forgiveness is often not a one-time thing. To the extent that you continue to have contact with her, you may have to forgive her repeatedly. I hope that you are able to forgive her!