Why You Should Force Yourself to Be Thankful

If you can’t think of three things to be thankful for, something is wrong.

My mom used to try to jumpstart little traditions for Thanksgiving when I was a kid. For a few years we would invite people without family to come join us, even though we barely knew them. It was fun to have new faces with us for the holiday. The other one I remember clearly was that my mom would hand out kernels of unpopped popcorn, and we would take turns putting the kernels in the middle of the table, sharing one thing we were thankful for with each kernel. We’d go around the table, taking turns talking about the good things in our lives.

It’s a good practice, trying to turn our attention toward thankfulness. When my family lived overseas, it could be hard to remember to be thankful. The holidays were a time you missed your friends and family back home, when it seemed like there were eight or nine empty chairs for every full one. The parade didn’t come on television. You couldn’t buy turkey in the store, or cranberry sauce, or stuffing, or any number of traditional American foods.

But we made it happen, and there were many reasons to be thankful along the way. My wife, Krista, and I went to a local hotel and asked if we could buy one of their imported turkeys they used in the restaurant, and they said yes. Then the head chef came out and talked to us for a while, and when we went to pick up the turkey (which we had been told would cost over a hundred dollars!), the chef had left instructions to give it to us as a gift.

Our friends agreed to host the big meal, and people worked hard to make it seem like home. Someone bought sweet potatoes, people found a way to make stuffing. We couldn’t fit the turkey in the short oven (it was about 10 inches tall), but we cut the turkey in half with a buzz saw, right down the middle, and cooked it in two shifts.

That year we sat at a long table surrounded by close friends and close approximations of traditional Thanksgiving foods, and we found, merely by stopping to think about it, that we had many reasons to be thankful.

“We had become a family who spent a lot of time complaining.”

It’s easy to lose sight of this. I noticed in my own family a while back that we had, the five of us, moved toward a place where we focused on the difficult things, the places where life didn’t precisely line up with our expectations, and we had become a family who spent a lot of time complaining. This happens sometimes, and it wasn’t something to be ashamed of, but I wanted to see if we could change that.

We started a new a family tradition. Each night when we sat down to dinner, we would go around the table and everyone would share three things they were thankful for. Three things a day, no matter how terrible your day. It was okay to say, “I’m thankful school is over” or “I’m thankful tomorrow will be a new day.”

Honestly, there were days when it was hard to come up with three things, especially when we first started. We had to add extra rules. For instance, no repeating what others shared. We can all be thankful for eating pizza, but we can think of a couple more things to be thankful for, too. We actually put a “one food item per family member” rule in place. When backed in the corner, my family is pretty thankful for food.

Here’s the thing: if you can’t think of three things to be thankful for, even on a pretty terrible day, something is wrong. I’m sitting in a hospital typing these words, while my friend is in the operating room having surgery. It’s terrible. But I’m thankful she’s my friend. Thankful for competent doctors. Thankful we live now and not a hundred years ago, and that medical knowledge has advanced.

You can always give thanks. Everyone on earth should be thankful for oxygen. Being able to take a deep breath. Being able to sit at the dinner table with our family. Having enough money to buy food. Living in a green and beautiful corner of the world. We tend to compare ourselves to those “better off” than we are, which leads to bitterness and dissatisfaction, instead of appreciating where we are and what we have.

“Force yourself to say three things you’re thankful for.”

A couple years ago I spoke at a conference in Beirut, Lebanon. It was a grueling trip, about 20 hours from my house to the home of my host. Usually on these long trips, I have a layover in Frankfurt, Germany, and there are these wonderful airline lounges: you can take a shower, get a snack, there are even beds where you can lie down for a few minutes and grab a nap. There was a misunderstanding on this particular trip and I found myself, instead, sitting sideways on a hard plastic chair outside the lounge, eating an airport pretzel. I landed in Beirut exhausted and rehearsing a letter of complaint to the airline.

At the conference, I met a woman from Jordan. She took the bus to Lebanon to come hear me speak. She told me how they had worried about land mines. How they had to stop before the various checkpoints and figure out whether they were run by Muslims or Christians, so they could put on the right type of clothing. For a few hours, a sniper was shooting at them and blew out a couple of the windows. “But I am so thankful you have come to speak to us,” she said. “I know it is a hardship for you to come so far, and to leave your family for the week. Thank you!”

I didn’t know what to say. I was thankful, suddenly, for my smooth travels. A safe chair in an airport, with a pretzel, while she crouched on the floor of a bus, covering her head, hoping not to be hit by flying glass. I should be full of thanks.

And I am. As I sit around the thanksgiving meal, all of us warm and happy, full of great food and laughing, passing the food around, clearing the table and making space for the dessert round, I am thankful. Thankful for my family and friends. Thankful for where I live, thankful that my parents and Krista’s parents get along so well and that we don’t have to choose between them at the holidays. Thankful for my kids. Thankful for my nephew’s habit of making cookies the size of the baking sheet he bakes them on. Thankful to live so close to so many people I love.

I hope you’re thankful today, too. And if you aren’t feeling thankful, force yourself to say three things you’re thankful for, and know there are many more to come.

This piece is a modified excerpt from Matt Mikalatos’ recent book, Sky Lantern.

Image courtesy of Shutterstock.

Matt Mikalatos
Written by