This Thanksgiving, or National American Heritage Day, or whatever it is you celebrate, or just a regular Thursday, I urge you to not just think about what you are grateful for, but to challenge yourself to imagine your life without it.
Sounds kind of morbid, I know, but this can be truly a powerful perspective-taking technique that challenges this cognitive distortion we sometimes find ourselves stuck in: My life is horrible and nothing will ever change. I know some of you had this thought this past year. I know because you told me and I know because I had the thought too. But what if your life truly were different? What if you didn’t have that person, that job, that hobby, that freedom, that health, that sunshine, that membership, that money, that coat, that natural talent of yours? How different would your life be?
I’ll share first because I have thought about this a lot lately. Disclaimer: My answer may stir up both positive and negative emotions for you. I recognize that, and while it is not my intention to make people experience negative emotions, it is my intention to create spaces where we can become more comfortable with emotions.
I am very grateful that I was born in and live in the United States. Yes, even in this very complicated-sometimes violent-post-Trump-COVID-racial injustice-and climate change era, I am grateful to be American. Maybe I won’t live here forever. Maybe one day I will decide to live on Mars (if this is a possibility in my lifetime, I am definitely saying yes), but for now, I am so very grateful to be born in California in the year 1986 to my parents.
Because compared to most other places in the world, America is still a place of freedom. Not for all. Not for the indigenous peoples who lived here well before my ancestors immigrated. Not for the Black Americans whose freedoms and rights we are still fighting for. And not for many immigrants who face discrimination here on a daily basis. But this is a story about what I am grateful for written about my lived experiences. And like I said, I am truly very lucky that I was born in California in the year 1986 to my white parents. I didn’t ask for it. I did nothing to earn it. I simply just won the lottery. And because of that, I have the freedom to speak my mind, voice my opinion, vote for who I believe in, protest against what I don’t believe in, choose who I am friends with, choose who I date, choose who I marry, choose when I marry, choose if I want kids, when I want kids, what work I will or will not do, what I will study, where I will work, where I will travel to, how I will spend my time, how I will manage my health, what neighborhood I will live in, what will happen to my body after I die. All of it. Most every part of my life is free.
So what I’m saying is, I am grateful for the many freedoms I have been granted because I live in the US here and now, because of the people who came before me to fight for my freedom, because of my white skin, and because my parents just want me to be happy.
And I know this because when I think about my life without freedoms, when I sometimes think- What if my ancestors hadn’t immigrated to the US? What if I were born elsewhere? Or in another era? Or to parents who expected something very specific from me? My life could be so completely different. I could be married with four children by now. I could be homeless. I could have not gone to college. I could be expected to stay at home. I could be working for a family company. I could be expected to put other peoples’ well-being before my own. I could also be royalty or a very important person or very wealthy or very powerful. Is all of that bad? Absolutely not. (Some of it is, in fact, good for some.) Is all of that bad for me? Yes. Because I don’t want it. I don’t want that life. I want a life I get to create. And that is what I have. And people around me who support it. And that is why I am grateful.
This technique, by the way, is called downward social comparison. It can be an effective disputation technique to improve our moods (Gibbons & Gerrard, 2011), but it also can be harmful when overused. Both kinds of social comparison- upward or downward- aren’t always healthy when not used in the right dosage at the right time (White, et. al, 2006). But that’s a topic for another article...
So at your dinner tables this holiday season, I encourage you to go around the table (and yes, even with the little ones) and ask each person to choose one thing they are grateful for (just one thing) and then to describe their life without it. Some people will cry. Some people will laugh. Some people are bound to roll their eyes. But I predict everyone will say something you didn’t expect them to. Something that pushes people out of their heads and gets them to drop into their hearts. And once you hit that heart place, stay there. Our minds have been overworked and our hearts are aching right now. Stay in your heart because staying in your heart, that’s really what gratitude is.
PS: My family already knows I will be making them do this at Thanksgiving. I always make them do things like this. I call it “organized fun” and my non-American friends tell me it is very American of me:).
PPS: Intrigued by questions like this? I call these Deepening Heart Questions and my clients practice asking each other them when they share in my CIRCLES. Reach out if you’d like to learn more.
Gibbons, F. X., & Gerrard, M. (2011). Effects of upward and downward social comparison on mood states. Journal of Social and Clinical Psychology,8( 1). https://doi.org/10.1521/jscp.19184.108.40.206
White, J. B., Langer, E. J., Yariv, L, & Welch, J. C. (2006). Frequent social comparisons and destructive emotions and behaviors: The dark side of social comparisons. Journal of Adult Development,13(1). DOI: 10.1007/s10804-006-9005-0