“What are you grateful for?”

For the shy adult or the grumpy teen, expressing gratitude around the Thanksgiving table can seem awkward and trite. Yet it’s basically compulsory—saying “nothing” or “I don’t know” when it’s our turn to speak won’t endear us to our family members. We end up saying the same thing we do every year, everyone smiles, and then it’s Aunt Edna’s turn.

According to research, though, feeling socially pressured to perform a certain happiness practice isn’t an effective path toward actually feeling happier. Psychologists Sonja Lyubomirsky and Ken Sheldon suggest that the best happiness practices are ones we choose, not ones we feel forced into based on our circumstances. External pressures can undermine “self-determined motivation,” the healthy drive that springs from our authentic interests and values.

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“Even though I’ve advocated a number of evidence-based practices, I’m actually moving away from prescribing specific practices and exercises because it can lead to what I am calling ‘to-do list’ gratitude or ‘check-list’ gratitude,” pioneering gratitude researcher Robert Emmons explains in a recent blog post. “Practicing gratitude becomes a burden rather than a blessing, making life heavier rather than lighter.”

What’s more, Thanksgiving declarations of gratitude tend to be brief and general—along the lines of, “I’m grateful for my family and my health.” But broad statements of gratitude might not be as effective as detailed ones, research suggests.

An unpublished University of Southern California study cited in Emmons’s book, Gratitude Works!, found that writing one sentence about five things we’re grateful for is less beneficial than writing five sentences about one thing we’re grateful for. After 10 weeks of gratitude journaling, the group who wrote in more detail about one thing each time felt less tired, sad, and lethargic and more alert, happy, excited, and elated than the less-detailed group.

Logo for the GGSC Gratitude Project The GGSC's coverage of gratitude is sponsored by the John Templeton Foundation as part of our Expanding Gratitude project.

Even those of us with the best intentions may struggle. As an introvert, I always feel put on the spot during my family’s Thanksgiving gratitude ritual, even though cultivating gratitude is important to me. And many of us may yearn to feel deep gratitude but can’t conjure it up on command.

This is not to say that we should jettison our Thanksgiving gratitude rituals. In fact, experts believe 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.

“If you go through grateful motions, the emotion of gratitude should be triggered,” writes Emmons in “10 Ways to Become More Grateful.”

So what would a no-pressure Thanksgiving look like, one that tries to encourage everyone—even the inarticulate, the shy, the grumpy, and the alienated—to safely express their thanks? What “grateful motions” might feel less forced and more genuine? Here are some suggestions.

1. Give people a chance to think before they thank

Have a family member lead everyone in a short gratitude meditation before the Thanksgiving meal, like this one from Jack Kornfield’s book, The Art of Forgiveness, Lovingkindness, and Peace.

“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,” writes Kornfield. 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.

For some people, the quiet contemplation of gratefulness might make for a solid first step—and help them to think of something concrete to say in front of family and friends!

2. Ask guests to imagine themselves alone at the table

There is an exercise called “Mental Subtraction of Relationships” that asks you to think about what your life might have been like had you never met someone special. As part of the pre-dinner meditation, you might ask guests to imagine themselves without anyone to spend Thanksgiving with. Here’s how to do it, adapted from Greater Good in Action, which provides “science-tested practices for a meaningful life”:

1. Take a moment to think about one person at the table.

2. Think back to where and how you met this person. If they are a family member, try to recall your first memories.

3. Think about all of the possible events and decisions—large and small—that could have prevented you from meeting this person, or kept them from your life.

4. Imagine what your life would be like now if events had unfolded differently and you had never met this person, or if they had left your life at some earlier point. Bring to mind some of the joys and benefits you have enjoyed as a result of this relationship—and consider how you would feel if you were denied all of them.

5. Shift your focus to remind yourself that you did actually meet this person and reflect upon the benefits this relationship has brought you. Now that you have considered how things might have turned out differently, appreciate that these benefits were not inevitable in your life. Allow yourself to feel grateful that things happened as they did and this person is now in your life.

After imagining a solitary Thanksgiving, opening your eyes to a table full of smiling faces can inspire gratitude.

3. Write letters to each other

In advance of dinner, ask your Thanksgiving guests to write short gratitude letters to read at the table. A gratitude letter 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:

1. Write as though you are addressing this person directly (“Dear ______”)

2. Don’t worry about perfect grammar or spelling.

3. Describe in specific terms what this person did, why you are grateful to this person, and how this person’s behavior affected your life. Try to be as concrete as possible.

4. Describe what you are doing in your life now and how you often remember their efforts.

5. Try to keep your letter to roughly one page (~300 words).

Research shows that reading gratitude letters produces a big happiness boost. The feelings of warmth and connection may be strong enough to outweigh any lingering shyness, and expressing gratitude for a person, rather than health or food, may feel more natural.

4. After dinner, take a walk—then give thanks over dessert

My family has always had a ritual of walking after dinner—but before the apple pie. Not only does the walk aid digestion, but it can reveal vibrant fall foliage, elegant architecture, and friendly faces. All of these things are potential sources of ongoing gratitude—and might help prime guests to give concrete thanks.

To truly appreciate what you see on your walk, take a moment to pause over each new and beautiful sight. Point it out to your family members, so they too can join in the mindful appreciation. Try to think about why each sight is pleasurable to you; perhaps the piles of golden leaves remind you of time spent playing as a kid. This technique is called a “Savoring Walk.”

If we’re inspired to keep up these gratitude practices, our view of gratitude may change—from a Thanksgiving chore to a meaningful way of thinking year-round. Then, “What are you grateful for?” will no longer be such a tricky question to answer.

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