How to Be Grateful (When You Really Don’t Feel Like It)
Don’t worry—you’re not the only one who feels like she’s faking it. So, how do you dig deep and show true gratitude during November? Follow this advice.
By November 24, giving thanks can start to feel like a command performance rather than a genuine act. Your social-media feed is all gratitude, all the time (#30daysofthanks!), and you’re up to your googly eyeballs in turkey-themed craft projects. It’s OK to feel jaded. “You can’t turn on gratitude” just because it’s Thanksgiving, says Robin Berman, M.D., an associate professor of psychiatry at the David Geffen School of Medicine at UCLA and the author of Permission to Parent. In fact, peak holiday season may not even be the best time to make it a priority. “Gratitude happens in quiet pauses and moments, not when you have a giant to-do list and you’re racing around,” she says. So how do you embrace the season sincerely? Ten experts are here to help. Let’s do this, November.
How to Shift Your Thinking
Don’t make it a Big Thing.
Gearing up for gratitude in anticipation of Thanksgiving can be simple and subtle. “In Hebrew, the term for gratitude is hakarat hatov, and the literal translation is ‘recognizing the good,’” says Rabbi Joel Nickerson of Temple Isaiah, in Los Angeles. “It’s not about finding new forms of positivity in life, but rather about reorienting yourself around the things that you should already be grateful for.” And not just the big, obvious ones—good health or a job promotion—but small things, too. “Growing up in Wrigleyville, in Chicago, I never had guaranteed parking,” says Ron Lieber, the author of The Opposite of Spoiled and a columnist for the New York Times. “About 12 years ago, I bought a parking spot in Brooklyn. It was one of the most extravagant things my wife and I have ever bought ourselves. But every time I pull in to spot 18, I always say to myself internally—and often out loud—how grateful I am.” Look for the little things and say thanks out loud.
But don’t make it a chore.
“There is a line between choosing to and having to do something,” says Christine Carter, Ph.D., a senior fellow at the Greater Good Science Center, at the University of California, Berkeley, and the author of Raising Happiness. “It sounds like a small distinction, but it’s enormous. From a psychological perspective, when your brain thinks you have to do something, it will be more likely to resist. Only when you feel like you are choosing to do something can it be authentic,” she says.
Reframe your thank-yous.
“We are required to say ‘thank you’ a lot, which I think of as ritual gratitude,” says Roy Blount Jr., a southern humorist and the author of Save Room for Pie. “When you fly somewhere, for example, you say ‘thank you’ to the cab driver and to the guy at the ticket counter and about nine more times before you get to where you’re going. That required repetition can cause us to lose touch with sincere thanks.” Make this change the next time you say “thank you”: Think about cost and benefit. “Notice the person’s cost—not just money they may have spent to do something for you but also the time and energy it took—as well as the true benefit to you,” says Jeffrey J. Froh, Psy.D., an associate professor of psychology at Hofstra University, in Hempstead, New York, and a coauthor of Making Grateful Kids. “Thinking about everyday kindnesses like that will make you way more grateful.”
Get philosophical for a minute.
“We all begin life dependent on others, and most of us end life dependent on others. We did not create or fashion ourselves. We did not birth ourselves,” says Robert Emmons, Ph.D., a professor of psychology at the University of California, Davis. “Life is about giving, receiving, and repaying. We are called to gratitude. If we choose to ignore this truth, we steer ourselves off course. Just knowing this is usually enough to inspire a more grateful outlook on life.”
Cut others some slack.
“Try not to be so hard on people who are practicing public acts of gratitude,” says Lieber. “Some of them probably feel like the public nature works for them as a way to sort of force themselves to be accountable. If they don’t declare at the beginning of the 30 days that they are doing their 30 days of thanks, they may not get it done.” If you find yourself growing cynical about hashtags and campaigns, hide those people for the month of November or take a break from social media.
And for the love of Pete, stay off Pinterest.
It’s hard to feel grateful for the small, everyday things if you are trying to pull off an uncharacteristically elaborate/crafty/complicated event. “The more you can slow things down, the more space you have to be grateful. And that gratitude then increases serotonin and dopamine in the brain, reducing stress,” says Berman. Is floral arranging your gift? Wonderful! (Be grateful for sharp shears and wide-mouth vases.) If not, stop scrolling and stick to your strengths. “Set it and forget it. Choose a menu and details that won’t be a burden,” says event planner Debi Lilly, the owner of A Perfect Event, in Chicago.
How to Help Your Kids Feel Gratitude
Don’t make it mandatory.
“I am a big believer in gratitude rituals year-round, but I also think kids will sometimes roll their eyes or blanch if they feel like anything is being shoved down their throats,” says Lieber. “Gratitude should not be taught; it should be modeled.” Instead of quizzing your kids on something that happened that day that they can be grateful for (although there is a time and place for that, like perhaps the Thanksgiving table), try to make a habit of offering those juicy tidbits yourself. “I like to casually bring up something awesome that happened to me. I want it to slowly creep into my kids’ consciousness that this is something we do,” says Lieber.
Give verbal high fives.
When your children do something nice for you, “verbally high-five them,” says Berman. If your child thanks you for dinner or for driving him somewhere, make a point to say, “Thank you so much for saying ‘thank you.’ That’s really nice of you!” And model that type of language as much as you can, says Berman. “You want your children to hear, “Thanks for driving, honey,” to your partner, not ‘You’re driving so slow. We’re going to be late.’”
“Abstract-thinking exercises that stimulate gratitude in adults will not work with young children,” says Emmons. “You need visual aids.” Draw a tree on a large piece of paper, tape it to the wall, and let kids add a Post-it note “leaf” of one thing that they are grateful for each day. Put a note in your child’s lunch box that reads, “Be thankful for recess!” For older kids, text them reminders to count their blessings, or say how grateful you are for them. Ideally, these would be any-month practices, but November is a good time to start making them a habit.
Focus on the Big Four.
If the idea of instilling gratitude in your kids feels overwhelming, start with the Big Four: education, family, health, and shelter. Consider addressing one each week (or simply one night of each week) during the month. You can ask questions. (What are you thankful for at school? What about home makes you feel safe and happy? What did you use your body for this week that you can be grateful for?) Or you can go deeper. For example, says Berman, “use ‘family’ as an opportunity to let your children know that their great-grandfather fought in World War II or hid a Jewish person in a basement or worked on a railroad. Their lives are linked.”
Put some dates on the calendar.
Waaay in the future. Don’t think of Thanksgiving as the New Year’s resolution of charitable giving. Vowing to volunteer once a week or even once a month may not be realistic for your family. Instead, think of ways in which you can easily give back, whether it’s visiting an elderly relative in an assisted-living center or simply calling an out-of-town friend.