How to Have a Truly Happy Thanksgiving

The keys to having a happy Thanksgiving, or at least a happier one than you might otherwise be anticipating, have little to do with getting the turkey right, or managing the annoying relative who seems to be a part of everyone’s family. Those things help, a little, but they aren’t nearly as important as these steps, some of which I had the privilege to appreciate more deeply after spending four days with a group of ministers. And how often does a rabbi get to say that?

Picture a rustically beautiful room at a Texas retreat center, in which 30 pastors are seated in a circle. They gather annually for spiritual and intellectual growth, and this year I was brought in to be their teacher. But as is so often the case, I was also their student, and the lessons they taught me are crucial to making the most of Thanksgiving.

The retreat opens with a “check in” during which participants let each other know what’s going on in their lives – what they are dealing with, both personally and professionally. That kind of opening didn’t surprise me, but the stories I heard did. Within this small group there were three dead grandchildren, two dead children, a rape, a number of divorces, and a serious illness or two. I was speechless at the amount of suffering in the group. And I was also deeply moved by how they dealt with it.

As they shared their ongoing struggles with these events, some recent and some not, the pastors kept asking two questions: 1, what could they learn from the experience and 2, for what could they be grateful in the midst of their suffering. In that moment, the teacher became the student and two crucial lessons about Thanksgiving emerged.

First, those pastors reminded me that we need not pretend that all is well in our lives in order to experience thankfulness. This coming Thursday, try to find at least one thing for which you can be grateful despite the tough times in which you may find yourself this year. It’s amazing how much happiness this practice can generate, on Thanksgiving, and throughout the year.

The second key to a happy Thanksgiving is sharing with at least one other person the thing for which we can be grateful. Sitting in that room, surrounded by those 30 people, I was also reminded that what we feel becomes more real, when we share it.

The third key to having a happy Thanksgiving can be learned from the Pilgrims, who celebrated even though much of what they hoped to achieve had not been realized. Don’t allow your hopes that things were better get in the way of appreciating where they are already good.

It may be that things in your relationships are not ideal, that things at work are not as you hoped they would be, but that doesn’t mean there are not always things for which to be grateful. If the Pilgrims could declare a day of thanksgiving, despite all the death and deprivation which they were experiencing – if they could find some good despite how short they had fallen of their ideals – so can we.

Finally, knowing that the story is never over will help us to have a happy Thanksgiving. One year ago, my family was waiting to hear if one of our kids had cancer. She didn’t. But before we knew that, we were faced with the opportunity to publically acknowledge how thankful we were for her having gotten through surgery. Could we acknowledge the good despite the pain of not knowing what could be coming? We weren’t sure.

Ultimately, I realized that we were holding back because the story wasn’t over. Then I realized that in life, our stories are never over, so why wait? Not only was publically acknowledging our joy about what had already gone well the right thing to do, it gave our kid and the rest of the family enormous strength to deal with what was yet unknown.

So by all means, work on the menu and deal with your relatives, but no matter how all that goes, practice these four steps and find yourself having a happier Thanksgiving than you may have ever imagined possible.

Rabbi Brad Hirschfield is the author of "You Don’t Have to Be Wrong for Me to Be Right: Finding Faith Without Fanaticism," and president of Clal-The National Jewish Center for Learning and Leadership.