Giving thanks on Thanksgiving can be a challenge when you are divorced. You may be approaching the Thanksgiving holiday with some version of dread, especially if you are recently divorced and not accustomed to being “single” on this “family” holiday. You may have well taken care of your parental responsibilities, abiding by your Parenting Plan and scheduling your kids with Mom from 6 p.m. Wednesday dinner until 3 p.m. on Thursday with her family, and 3:01 p.m. until 6 p.m. dinner on Friday with Dad and his family. But what about you? Did you make arrangements for yourself? How are you feeling heading into this family holiday?
The PR for this holiday is so full of “family” rhetoric and images. But what does “family” mean? Especially when your family has been restructured. You may feel relieved to be out of a difficult marriage, but this family restructuring, as I’ll call it, may not feel good right now. Like carving the turkey before it's cooked.
Gratitude is an abstract noun coming from the medieval Latin “gratitudo,” meaning thankfulness. History books trace this historic American Christian tradition to 1621 [or 1623 is some books] to a shared autumn feast between the Plymouth colonists and Wampanoag Indians. After the harvest crops were gathered, Governor William Bradford of the 1620 Pilgrim Colony, proclaimed:
"All ye Pilgrims with your wives and little ones, do gather at the Meeting House, on the hill… there to listen to the pastor, and render Thanksgiving to the Almighty God for all His blessings."
Individual colonies and states then celebrated days of Thanksgiving for the next two centuries. It finally became a national holiday when in 1863 President Abraham Lincoln proclaimed an annual National Day of Thanksgiving “on the last Thursday of November, as a day of Thanksgiving and Praise to our beneficent Father who dwelleth in the heavens." I’d say that it was no accident that Lincoln reached for gratitude smack in the middle of that most terrible Civil War. Talk about a house divided, a family splitting up!
Thanks. For what, exactly? If you are struggling with this question – for what to be thankful – let me offer you what may be a different approach to think about this. You’ve likely heard of the Positive Psychology movement. Don’t laugh. I too dismissed this theory at first, thinking it was about the frozen smiley faces you see on Disney World posters. It’s not. There is legitimate and strong research that convincingly shows, for example, that positive emotion predicts good features in life, such as a long healthy life and marital satisfaction.
a) Martin E.P. Seligman, Ph.D.* asked what sounded like a simple question: Does understanding and building happiness trump understanding and alleviating suffering? “People who are impoverished, depressed or suicidal, care about much more than the relief of their suffering. These persons care – sometimes desperately – about virtue, about purpose, about integrity, and about meaning. (Seligman, 2002, p. 6).
b) His seminal book reminds us of an earlier psychological distinction between feelings as “states,” momentary occurrences, and “traits," longer term personality characteristics, positive or negative, which remain constant over time and in different contexts.
c) Good feeling and gratification result when we activate the positive characteristics of strengths and virtues, “among them valor, perspective, integrity, equality, loyalty.”
d) And positive emotions, such as “confidence, hope, and trust,” and positive institutions, such as “democracy, strong family, and free press” … “serve us best not when life is easy, but when life is difficult.” These buffer us against misfortune and help build resilience.
Seligman believes that negative emotions dissipate when we involve ourselves in philanthropic acts; exercising kindnesses, in which we are totally engaged, result in the deepest gratification. Thus, engaging our strengths and virtues imbues our life with authenticity and a deep sense of well-being.
And so, I ask you. What kindnesses fully engage you? What are your values and virtues? Which are you most proud of? If you have kids, which of your strengths would you like them to see and to emulate? Five years, ten years from now, how would you like your kids to remember this holiday, this Thanksgiving, or many Thanksgivings? No, I’m not being Pollyannish. You really do have a choice. You can choose the positive road taken that reveals your strength(s) of character. Just as your family has restructured, you can restructure your approach to highlight your positive feelings.
I’ve a vivid memory of one Thanksgiving when I first arrived in NYC for graduate school. A bunch of us decided to watch the Macy’s parade balloons blown up on the Wednesday night before Thanksgiving Thursday. This laborious process takes place near the Natural History Museum in a courtyard you enter at Columbus Ave. and W. 79 St. A drizzly rain started and the wind was whipping up. The balloon handlers struggled with the heavy ropes to keep steady each huge balloon as it was filled with helium. They’d been inflating the balloons since 3 p.m. that afternoon and would likely work into the wee night hours.
When the parade took place on Thanksgiving morning, the previous night’s struggles were gone, and it was not evident that it had taken an entire year of preparation, including designing, modeling, cutting and assembling materials. Unless you knew, the boots on the ground were not evident either: 90 handlers required for each full-size balloon, about 2,000 handlers in all, with 200 dress fitters for the costumes, 400 kids, 300 float escorts, 900 clowns... I could go on. But you get the idea: that it may take you a good deal of preparation to be present in your best self. Inhabiting and using a Positive Psychology approach may be like a Macy’s Parade balloon requiring some (or much?) laborious preparation in order to float along with apparent ease, bringing a smile to child and adult alike. For your labors, may you both offer and harvest many kindnesses within your [restructured] family over these days of giving thanks.
*Reference: Authentic Happiness: Using the New Positive Psychology to Realize Your Potential for Lasting Fulfillment by Martin E.P. Seligman, Ph.D., (Simon & Schuster, 2002).
Joy A. Dryer, Ph.D. is in private practice in NYC and Poughkeepsie, NY as a Clinical Psychologist/Psychoanalyst and as a Divorce Consultant/Mediator.