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  • When overwhelmed by anxiety or negatively, I have developed a habit of stopping and counting 10 basic things for which I am grateful. Tweet This
  • "I believe that appreciation is a holy thing, that when we look for what’s best in the person we happen to be with at the moment, we’re doing what God does..." Mr. Rogers Tweet This

In the Saturday Night Live skit, “A Thanksgiving Miracle,” multiple generations of a family sit down for a traditional holiday dinner, only to quickly devolve into rancorous fighting about politics. It takes all of seconds to go from the father opening the meal with, “I am so thankful to have you all here today,” to an aunt saying, “I am thankful that our governor is not going to let those refugees in here.” Immigration, race, ISIS, gender ideology—no divisive stone goes unturned throughout their meal. It is only when Adele’s hit song “Hello” is played that everyone stops arguing. The family members all progressively turn into Adele throughout the skit.

It’s silly, and yet it went viral, as it came out the Thanksgiving before the 2016 presidential election, when the country felt like it couldn’t be more divided. Fast-forward to 2019, and things are even worse. Multiple studies have confirmed that political polarization has only worsened in the years since the election, and another one is around the corner. For many families that disagree about politics, that makes Thanksgiving and the holidays in general a time of particular anxiety.

The endless headlines at this time of year for the past several years about Thanksgiving dread confirm this. “How to Get Through Thanksgiving With Your Toxic Family, According to Experts,” reads one from BustleUSA TODAY offers advice on “How to Navigate Awkward Political Conversations at the Thanksgiving Table.” 

Listicles about getting through politics with family over turkey and stuffing abound, and I won’t add another one. I will only propose that those facing Thanksgiving anxiety focus their energies in a particular way on the purpose of the holiday itself: gratitude. The same year that the Adele SNL skit went viral, I attended the Bradley Prize lectures and was forever changed by remarks given by Yuval Levin. In a speech entitled “Conservatism is Gratitude,” Levin argued that gratitude is the essential preservative of the good in a society. He said:

 But we can also never forget what moves us to gratitude, and so what we stand for and defend: the extraordinary cultural inheritance we have; the amazing country built for us by others and defended by our best and bravest; America’s unmatched potential for lifting the poor and the weak; the legacy of freedom—of ordered liberty—built up over centuries of hard work. We value these things, not because they are triumphant and invincible, but because they are precious and vulnerable, because they weren’t fated to happen, and they’re not certain to survive. They need us—and our gratitude for them should move us to defend them and to build on them.

For me, that began a new chapter marked by a sort of “life changing joy” of gratitude, wherein I began refocusing negative thoughts or experiences in my life into moments of gratitude. Dirty dishes meant a meal was eaten. Work to do meant a job I love. Perhaps my most poignant moment of gratitude was when I was bringing a sick child to the early walk-in hours after a sleepless night and a full day ahead, only to realize for the first time in seven years of doctor’s visits that the office I passed on the way to the elevators every time was a fertility clinic. That particular morning, a couple stood outside crying. A sick child meant having a child at all.

In the subsequent years, I have developed a habit of stopping myself when overwhelmed by anxiety or negativity and counting 10 basic things for which I am grateful. Often, by the third or fourth thing, my entire outlook has changed, and I resume my day feeling energized and happy. This is what I think Levin meant when he said, “the work of active gratitude.”

Studies are clear that my experience of focusing on gratitude is not an outlier. Gratitude is connected with improved physical and mental health. Embracing it can do everything from reduce stress and anxiety levels to reduce the number of visits one makes to the doctor in a year. Harvard Medical School put it plainly, “Giving thanks can make you happier.” The University of California at Berkley ties gratitude to “fewer aches and pains to improved sleep to better cardiovascular health,” and TIME documents numerous health benefits from lowering depression and improved eating habits.

If you don’t want to take it from the medical journals, perhaps take it from America’s favorite neighbor, Mister Rogers. Of gratitude he said

I believe that appreciation is a holy thing, that when we look for what’s best in the person we happen to be with at the moment, we’re doing what God does; so, in appreciating our neighbor, we’re participating in something truly sacred.

Wise words for us all as we come together to give thanks this Thursday.

Ashley E. McGuire is a Contributing Editor at the Institute for Family Studies. Her new book is Sex Scandal: The Drive to Abolish Male and Female (Regnery, 2017).