How to make gratitude more than a Thanksgiving chore

Many American families take advantage of the spirit of the Thanksgiving holiday to formally or informally acknowledge all that we have to be grateful for living in this wonderful country. For children, it’s important to have the adults in their lives whom they care for and who care for them encourage this practice. Beyond the pleasure of sharing a special meal together, it sends the message: Gratitude is an important value for us.

Thanksgiving is a meaningful tradition. One psychologist who has studied gratitude defines it in two parts. First, it must include an affirmation of goodness – that there are good things in the world, gifts and benefits we’ve received. We need to identify something outside ourselves for which we are grateful. Second, it must include identifying the source of this goodness, from where it comes. For example, if a child expresses that she is grateful for the fresh ear of summer corn she is having for dinner, an adult can help her consider all the people it took to put that ear in her hands: the seed producer, the farmer who planted and grew it, the folks who made the combine harvester, the trucker who brought it to the store. The concept could go even deeper with appreciation for the soil, sun and water without which the corn could not have grown.

There are a number of studies that document the many benefits of practicing gratitude. At the physical level, scientists report stronger immune systems, lower blood pressure, and better sleep for people who regularly engage in gratitude practice. At the psychological level, people report experiencing more positive emotions such as joy and pleasure, and being more optimistic and happy. Gratefulness also contributes to being more outgoing, forgiving, helpful to others, generous and compassionate.

For the shy child or the grumpy teen, expressing gratitude over Thanksgiving dinner can seem awkward or trite. Going around the table with overt or subtle pressure for each person to say something can feel like a compulsory exercise—one’s turn to speak can be an anxious or unpleasant moment for some kids and adults, as well, and saying “nothing” or “I don’t know” doesn’t cut it. However, this is not to say that Thanksgiving gratitude rituals should be jettisoned. Experts tell us that it’s the repeated practice of gratitude—even when we don’t feel grateful—that will eventually lead to a more enduring attitude of gratitude. For kids who just don’t seem to be into participating, it’s helpful to know that there is evidence that going through grateful motions can trigger the emotion of gratitude.

Research shows that the best gratitude practices are ones we choose, not ones we feel forced into based on our circumstances.

We feel best about offering thanks that springs from our own authentic interests and values, whatever our age.

Be creative and think about some ways to make your Thanksgiving gratitude ritual vibrant and inclusive, something that doesn’t feel like a command performance, but a heart-felt and often joyous expression of sharing life together.

What grateful motions might feel less forced and more genuine? Here are a few examples to get you started, with thanks to Kira Newman at the Greater Good Science Center (The Trouble with Thanksgiving Gratitude): 

1.      You might start with someone explaining what gratitude is and leading everyone in a short meditation for all to enjoy. In Jack Kornfield’s book, The Art of Forgiveness, Lovingkindness, and Peace, he writes:

“Gratitude is a gracious acknowledgment of all that sustains us, a bow to our blessings, great and small, an appreciation of the moments of good fortune that sustain our life every day.” His meditation asks you to think of the environment and the people who make your life possible:

With gratitude I remember the people, animals, plants, insects, creatures of the sky and sea, air and water, fire and earth, all whose joyful exertion blesses my life every day. With gratitude I remember the care and labor of a thousand generations of elders and ancestors who came before me.

2. Give people a chance to think before they thank.

Try taking a few moments for a quiet contemplation of gratefulness before asking anyone to say something. This might make for a solid first step—and help them to have enough time to think of something concrete to say in front of family and friends.

3. Write letters to each other or to the gathered family.

In advance of dinner, ask everyone who is old enough to write short gratitude letters to read at the table (younger children could participate by drawing a picture). A gratitude letter or picture expresses appreciation for someone—a relative, friend, teacher, or colleague—who made an impact on your life but hasn’t been properly thanked. The letter can detail what they did, why you feel thankful, and how your life is different today. An option is to write the letter to all present about an event or time for which one feels grateful. Each person takes turns reading their letter, or asking someone to read it for them if he or she is shy or reluctant.

4. After dinner, take a walk—then give thanks later, around the fire or over dessert.

Instead of starting the meal with a moment of gratitude, do it afterwards when everyone is likely feeling good and able to relax together. Having a walk not only aids digestion, but conversations and sights along the way can all be potential sources of ongoing gratitude—and might help prime family and friends to give concrete thanks. Perhaps invite people to spend part of the walk being mindful and appreciative of what they see. Do the piles of autumn leaves remind you of time spent playing in them as a child?

This Thanksgiving, may your family be inspired to keep up the practice of gratitude. The goal is to change gratitude from a Thanksgiving chore to a meaningful way of thinking year-round. Soon, “What are you grateful for?” will no longer seem like such a tricky question to answer.

Philip Brown, PhD is the resident expert on character education for Wear the Cape ( Dr. Brown is a Fellow of the Graduate School of Applied and Professional Psychology at Rutgers University where he founded and directed the Center for Social and Character Development.