Thanksgiving: Gratitude for Even the Hard Stuff

Originally published on The Huffington Post – November 18, 2012

As Thanksgiving rolls around, it always puts me in a reset mode — time to remember what I’m grateful for. Usually, it’s the good stuff: moments of joy, new adventures, fun-filled moments. This year, however, is different: My father just passed away, my dog may have to be put to sleep any day and my dear friend who is a LOT younger finds herself in the last stages of cancer… and I generally write about happiness.

There is a shroud of disbelief and grief around me, but I know that there’s something powerfully transformative in this space. Rather than destroying my gratitude, this period is rekindling it in an even deeper way.

Some people are born optimists. My father was one. Up until the week before he passed, he believed he would live to 100. Denial kept my dad going for years. When the nurses came around, he would always say, “I’m GREAT!” which made everyone chuckle. Was this some kind of brilliant strategy? For some people, their will to live can and does produce the miracle. The biochemistry of hope can be powerful.

Yet when all those cycles have passed, when destiny catches up with desire (like being back in the hospital every two weeks), rather than dance with denial, I prefer to know

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Holiday Happiness — Be Here Now

From the Huffington Post:

So many people grumble and gripe about the holidays — too much family, too much food, too many obligations. But what if you approached it all with another perspective — as though this might be your last time to be together. Would you overlook some of the annoyances? Would you focus on what amused you about specific people instead of what drove you crazy? Would you choose to make the moments special and have a deeper connection?

This time of year reminds me of my father-in-law. He was with us one year, and by the next holiday season, he was gone, so quickly and unexpectedly to pancreatic cancer. I don’t harbor regrets as we all got to be with him at the end, but it gets me thinking of how impermanent life can be. It can also be something as simple as

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Thanksgiving Holds Key to Happiness

From the Huffington Post:

The idea of Thanksgiving, that is giving thanks, makes it one of my all-time favorite holidays. It has built into it one of the timeless keys to happiness: gratitude. Thanksgiving actually directs us to tune into what we are thankful for. The tradition of sitting around the table hearing each person saying what they are grateful for is a sure way to lift everyone’s spirits. From simple gratitude for pumpkin pie with whipped cream to profound appreciation for being alive to share this day, the myriad of expressions are funny, inspiring and very often open our hearts.

The idea of bringing to light what we are grateful for in life is powerful. Automatically we shift from “what is missing in my life” to

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Appreciating as an Action




So, no surprise that on Thanksgiving, as on any other day, I was caught up in the language of the occasion. In particular, I began wondering about the name of the holiday itself, Thanksgiving. Even someone without a degree in linguistics could tell you that it comes from giving thanks.[1] But the general public might not know how much complex appreciative action is hidden inside this humble noun (in addition the action of removing toddler-sized cranberry sauce prints from your sweater, of course…):

First, there is the action of giving, giving thanks. And hidden in there somewhere is someone or something that you’re giving that thanks to – perhaps your parents, your friends, your partner, your religious institution, or maybe the universe. Either way, there is a hidden recipient in there that bears pondering.

Second, there is the action of thanking. And, again, there is a missing recipient – thanking someone or something. Further, there is a hidden cause for thanks in there: you are thanking someone for something – health, friends, family, laughter, etc., etc. As I hope many Project Happiness students are learning this year, engaging in the action of thanking – appreciating – actually changes your brain, turning it towards the positive. So this action isn’t really new for Project Happiness fans.

Finally, there are, oddly, some historical connections of the word thank to the actions of thinking and feeling. These may seem far removed from thanking, but they are all what some linguists refer to as mental processes: things that go on inside your head (or heart!). These same linguists often chunk mental actions up even further into the actions of perceiving, thinking and feeling. I would argue that thanking involves all 3 of these. To thank we must first practice mindfulness so that we can perceive the things around us we appreciate. Then we need to grapple with understanding these things using our intellect and, finally, we must hold them in our hearts to experience the feeling of thankfulness.

All in all, then, the noun thanksgiving is action-packed. This week, as you pursue your own mindfulness practice and encourage the mindfulness practices of your students, children, friends and colleagues, think about some of the actions hidden in the nouns in your lives[2]:

School –> to school

Whom? In what?

Food –> to feed

What part of yourself? With what?

Friend –> to friend/to befriend

Whom? How?

Work –> to work

With what materials? By what methods?

Class –> to classify

Whom? By what standards?

Homework –> to work at home

On what? To what end?

So here’s my challenge: verbify the positive things in your world. Take just 5 minutes out of class, a busy work week, or a homework session with your kids. Ask your students/colleagues/kids to name some of the most important things in their lives – the things they value. Then work together for a couple minutes working out some of the actions behind those things, using the columns above as a starting point. Share some of those verbified values as comments on the blog and perhaps together we can come up with a grammar of appreciation.

Giving thanks for all the amazing people in my life who have given me the occasion to create a grammar of gratefulness,


[1] For those of you desperate to learn more, more, more about word structure, here are some other fun facts about the word Thanksgiving:

  • Giving is a present participle (or a gerund…it depends…)
  • Participles come from verbs but they, themselves, are officially nouns
  • The verb to give takes 2 objects: the thing given and the person who’s receiving
  • The second object of give (the receiver) is missing in Thanksgiving
  • Thanks is itself derived originally from a verb, to thank
  • To thank originally comes from a waaaay old form, tong (this form is Proto-Indo European if you really want to impress people at parties)
  • Tong originally meant to think or to feel, not to thank

Okay, I could give you a lot more linguistic tidbits, but if I did that, there wouldn’t be anything else for linguists to do!

[2] For you grammar mavens out there: these are NOT all legitimate etymologies – just
fun with language!