I love Thanksgiving and Christmas. These two holidays capture everything I find inspiring about the human spirit and the culture around them has a tendency to bring out the best in people.
Between the two of them, Thanksgiving is too often dismissed as the beginning of the Christmas season or, even worse, the “opportunity” to come together and argue with distant relatives about the outcome of some political Hunger Games over which nobody at the table had a significant say. The idea of being grateful or giving thanks for the time together is referenced sarcastically or not at all.
This is a disappointing state of affairs because there is so much potential in the concept of Thanksgiving and this potential is actively within the control of the people who dread the holiday.
It doesn’t need to be a holiday to be dreaded, no matter how awful your extended family can be (trust me on this one). You can use the holiday as an opportunity to have headspace and downtime to reflect on some core virtues captured in the culture. At a minimum, the virtues embodied in Thanksgiving are gratefulness, consciousness, and productivity.
Side-note: I consider a virtue to be any trait or habit that is a product of our ability as rational, thinking beings to craft our thoughts and our lives in the pursuit of a specific end. Most animals do not possess this capacity because they don’t have Symbolic Self-Awareness. Virtues are those traits and habits which lend themselves to the pursuit of these ends. Email me for more information on what inspires these thoughts — I’ll do a series of practical philosophy posts in the future.
Virtue #1: Gratefulness
This is the obvious virtue captured in Thanksgiving (even embodied in the name of the holiday). Unfortunately, the extent to which people actively and consciously practice it is limited in the holiday, especially with the stress of preparing a large meal, traveling, or being around family members to which one does not feel any real affiliation (more on that in a second).
To say that gratefulness is a virtue is not some affirmation of hokey self-help — it is a rational tool which you can use to make yourself a more excellent version of yourself. Various studies in positive psychology affirm the common senseical notion that being grateful and experiencing gratitude can lead to an increased level of wellness. While correllation does not equal causation, if you value your health and overall well-being, taking conscious time out of your day and thinking about those things which you value and which you hold dear will lend you to being a better version of yourself throughout that day.
There is plenty of talk about gratitude and gratefulness but what does it mean to actually experience the moment of being grateful or gracious? It is an active choice to sit back and ask yourself, “for what in my past/present/future am I grateful?” What are those things that, if possible, I would like to have more of or experience more time with and what are those things that lend themselves to moving me away from the things I don’t want?
That “active choice” element is key. It is easy to read a book or an article about the positive mental, psychological, philosophical, and physiological effects of gratitude and gratefulness but then lose that in the minutiae of a busy day between work, family, and other elements of self-care. It’s also easy to lose it in the negative connotations associated with this kind of research that many people unfortunately hold.
Thanksgiving is the chance to get the couple of minutes to sit back and, even through the chaos of preparing dinner, traveling to see family, or ignoring the political commentary over dinner, to sit back and ask, “for what am I grateful right now?”
At the very least, gratefulness and gratitude help you escape a rut of self-pity or depression, even if you don’t buy the virtue element.
Active virtue: Take two minutes today and think of three people, things, character traits, or experiences for which you are grateful. These can be in the past, present, or future. If you no longer have one of them, do not focus on the lack of that thing, but instead focus on where that brought you and the moment of that experience.
Virtue #2: Consciousness
Consciously choosing how you feel and what you think about are key components to leading a life getting closer to your ends and the power of being conscious about gratitude is a signficant step in the right direction. There’s another virtue captured in the culture of Thanksgiving which too many people ignore — and that’s the ability to consciously structure your contexts and your life.
I’ve met far too many people — especially young people — who dread Thanksgiving because it means they have to spend more time than they’d like around people they don’t like, people who detract from their pursuit of excellence, and people who generally harm the quality of their lives (and far too often these people are family, adding an extra guilt element). This makes practicing the virtue of gratitude harder and generally detracts from one’s enjoyment of the holiday. To get through the day, you either withdraw psychologically, engage with hostility, or retreat to alcohol to numb and speed up the experience.
People are led to believe that they “have to” be around these people because it is a family holiday or because a partner, friend, or spouse wants to have these people around.
This just isn’t true.
Be conscious about how you spend the day and the context in which you immerse yourself. If it is a context which does not lend itself to excellence and to gratitude, actively putting yourself in it is undermining your own ability to succeed in life.
This may involve a difficult conversation with a parent about an unfriendly uncle or aunt, or a conversation with your spouse about why you can’t invite one of her friends, or going as far as organizing your own separate Thanksgiving experience. Be conscious about your day.
Plenty of young people organize “Friendsgiving” meals in lieu of the traditional Thanksgiving dinner. Whether due to consciously choosing to associate with people who push them towards success and excellence or due to geographical restrictions keeping them from family, this is an excellent opportunity to practice the virtue of consciousness.
Active virtue: Take two minutes to think about everybody in your life who pushes you to be a better version of yourself and supports your pursuit of excellence. Take a moment to wish them a happy Thanksgiving and, if geography permits, begin planning to share a meal with the group in the future.
Virtue #3: Productivity & Abundance
Thanksgiving is a celebration of the labors of your productivity and to enjoy the abundance that comes from it. You work hard to be able to afford the time off, the luxury of travel, or just the opportunity to enjoy a warm dinner — do not let somebody take that appreciation from you.
Understanding that your productive labor results in benefits that you and others enjoy and that these things do not simply appear in the world from the ether can be lost in the day-to-day of finances and work. Sitting back over a lavish meal with those you’ve consciously chosen to keep in your life reminds you of the power that your own mind and body possess.
Productivity is one of the most human virtues and is the one thing that unites all of the most excellent people in the world. Whether it is productivity at home or productivity in the workplace, the ability to identify value to be created and provide a solution which provides that value (while capturing some of it in the transaction) is uniquely human. Chimps may be able to craft simple tools but they cannot create wealth.
Ignore any pundits who decry the consumerism of the holiday (this goes doubly for Christmas) and recognize that the only way that kind of abundance is possible is through those who recognize opportunities to create value and act on them.
Active virtue: Write down 3 ideas this evening before you go to bed for opportunities where value can be created. This can be providing information that others want, connecting buyers and sellers, directly tendering a service, or better ways to extract value from your current job.
Enjoy this unique experience to recognize the good and the value in your life and to actively, consciously arrange your thoughts in pursuit of excellence.