Cultivating Gratitude for Thanksgiving 2020

by Thaddeus Camlin, PsyD

Gratitude tends to be hard-earned.  When life’s complexities converge and we endure a series of painful complications, gratitude may seem like a fool’s errand at precisely the time when it is most needed.  Thanksgiving reminds us, no matter our circumstances, to pause and appreciate.  Nestled amidst a global pandemic, this iteration of our annual holiday of thanks may be a strange and creative version of our usual traditions.  The felt experience of true gratitude may be elusive amidst uniquely trying times.  What follows are some considerations for how to cultivate gratitude for Thanksgiving 2020 (spoiler alert: it’s a not a matter of ‘5 easy ways to be grateful,’ there are no shortcuts or drive-thru paths to true gratitude).

Gratitude is not the most natural human experience.  Often, the experience of true gratitude takes focus, determination, and persistence.  Every once in a while something happens that is both greatly beneficial and unexpected, and gratitude flows freely.  More often than not, however, one who wishes to experience gratitude must cultivate it, must mine for it amidst the rubble of life with great patience and discipline.  Gratitude is much more likely to be a diamond in the rough than an overwhelming rush.

While many understandably see 2020 as something akin to a rubbish fire, we would be remiss to dismiss the reality that even a dumpster fire gives off warmth and light.  While discussing the importance of gratitude amidst adversity and suffering risks trivializing the magnitude of struggle many are facing, it is important to do so anyway because it is an opportunity to look at the relationship between gratitude and hardship in a complete way.  Khalil Gibran poetically reminded us that the deeper that sorrow carves into our being the more joy we can contain.  Indeed, many argue that cultivating gratitude is what makes us happy and joyful.

The reality is that the depth of our gratitude often mirrors the depth of our contrasting backdrop of pain.  Knowing what we lost can help us appreciate what we have.  The pain of losing loved ones hopefully inspires us to grow closer to the loved ones still with us.  The increased risk of health problems hopefully reminds us to appreciate our health if we’re lucky enough to be healthy.  Hearing about families who cut loved ones off for ingesting psychoactive compounds might help us appreciate our family members who stand by us no matter what.  Hearing that other states are not banning Thanksgiving 2020 gatherings might help one feel grateful for living in a state with more restrictive safety measures.  Conversely, hearing that it is illegal in some states to gather with family this Thanksgiving 2020 might deepen the appreciation for being able to freely gather with family in states where doing so is still legal.

As elusive as gratitude can be, the great paradox is that gratitude can be found anywhere, at anytime, if we consciously steer our attention towards it.  Granted, the human mind is wired to see and solve problems in order to survive.  Pausing to appreciate and celebrate, to focus on what we have rather than what we don’t have, is the cognitive equivalent to a salmon swimming upstream.  Despite the incredible effort and sacrifice, it is important to remember that the salmon isn’t just swimming upstream for kicks, or to get a good work out in, it is swimming upstream because survival depends on it.  The survival of our own emotional and psychological wellbeing, especially amidst trying times, often depends upon our willingness to cultivate gratitude by persistently swimming against the cognitive streams of fear-based confirmation biases that alienate us from the beauty in ourselves, in others, and in the universe.