With cases of COVID-19 once again surging in L.A. County, even the most modest Thanksgiving gatherings are in jeopardy. This is happening at a time when family and friends need connection more than ever. So how do we make our loved ones feel close, even if they are far away? And how can we make the most of those moments we are able to spend together in person?
One way that’s fitting to the season is expressing our gratitude.
Sonja Lyubomirsky is a UC Riverside psychology professor and author of “The How of Happiness: A Scientific Approach to Getting the Life You Want.” In her research, she asks people to write letters of gratitude to specific people in their lives. Think about a family member, friend or mentor, how much they’ve supported you and what they mean to you.
Consider contacting everyone who will gather with you for Thanksgiving ahead of time and asking each person to write a letter of gratitude to share with someone else who will be there. You could also write and mail letters to people who won’t be around your table. “When you express gratitude toward specific people, it makes you feel more connected to them,” Lyubomirsky says.
For the more traditional around-the-table Thanksgiving exercise, where each person names something for which they are grateful, neuroscientist Glenn Fox, a researcher with the USC Performance Science Institute whose focus is gratitude, suggests setting some parameters. This makes the exercise easier and less intimidating. “There is a vulnerability to gratitude,” Fox says, so people can feel stuck or awkward about expressing it. He suggests asking people to name something in the room that makes them feel grateful, or maybe a person who has done something helpful for them this past year. That will help people focus and not feel the need to come up with something so profound.
Not everyone, however, will be able to be around the table. Fox, for instance, has a baby at home, so the family is planning a much smaller celebration than usual. They will have Zoom calls with some family members, including some on the East Coast he hasn’t seen in months. Phone calls, FaceTime or even sending a card can help you connect. “Even if it’s a smaller, more humble Thanksgiving, there’s still something to be grateful for,” he says. “You might as well make the best of it.”
This might mean doing things in new ways, according to Pasadena therapist John Sovec. “All of those traditions that we have tied to the holidays started somewhere,” he says. “Can we tap into our creativity and find new meanings and new traditions?” Maybe this is the year to sit down with your kids and make beautiful hand-drawn Thanksgiving turkeys and send them out to all the extended family. Maybe it’s time for a recipe exchange, so that no one will miss out on Dad’s famous sweet potato casserole. Hop on Zoom to cook together and compare notes. Maybe people are going to eat separately, but after dinner you can all have a Zoom game night. And next year, game night might become a live thing.
Despite your best efforts, this could be the year that makes you appreciate every other Thanksgiving that much more. That’s also OK. “There’s no limit on the way we can think forward and backward with gratitude,” Fox says. And he suggests trying to tap into a related outlook as well. “The cousin of gratitude is optimism,” says Fox.
So, here’s to a better holiday season next year.