It’s Thanksgiving this week, which means it’s time for my fellow New Yorkers and I to take a pause from our habitual kvetching and instead turn our attentions towards gratitude (and an industrious eye towards “Can I actually cook a turkey dinner in this shoebox kitchen?”)
Giving thanks in New York can feel like pulling teeth because we’ve made complaining an Olympic sport. Ask someone how they’re doing, and you’ll hear a litany of woes. And, of course, there’s no lack of things to complain about—the subway is always messed up, rent is too damn high, and of course—inflation. But there’s a charm to the New York kvetch: it bonds us together. We struggle and we suffer here because we love it. And anything worthwhile is worth a bit of pain, right?
This perspective is a high contrast with my previous home of Los Angeles. There, woo-woo positivity is so dominant that there’s an actual place called Cafe Gratitude, where instead of normal food names, the menu is filled with affirmations, like “I am Serene”—that’s a cinnamon roll, by the way. (I know, how did I live in that city for over a decade?)
But as much as I roll my East Coast eyes at affirmations, I do have to admit there’s cold hard science behind the importance of positive thinking—which I’ve talked about before. Making the intentional choice to focus on the things you’re blessed with, the things you do well, the things you like about yourself and your life will lower your stress, brighten your outlook, and make that blood pressure go way down. Which is important to remember on Thanksgiving, when we gather with our families to have infuriating arguments about politics over stuffing.
Oops! I went negative again. See how easy it is?
So I thought I’d share a few helpful tips to shift the mindset for you grizzled, jaded folks struggling to go grateful this year.
Flip the script
What’s your kvetch-of-the-day? A terrible commute? Annoying work calls? Inlaws coming into town? Fair enough—these things can suck. But with reframing, they are just information.
Maybe your inlaws are coming into town for way less time than last year. Maybe you’re lucky you own a car and are employed. It’s okay to complain, but try and find the part of the story you’re neglecting—the silver lining.
There’s also a quick hack for reframing your perspective: instead of “I have to,” say “I get to.” You get to work out at 5am, you get to walk your dog, you get to make dinner. Changing the language you use to speak to yourself can truly change the way you see the world around you.
Refocus your thoughts
If there isn’t a silver lining or other side to your kvetch, consider what you’re overlooking when you’re focused on the negative parts of life. We naturally focus on negative things because, back in our caveman times, that’s where danger lies. But we live indoors now, and complaining about utility bills isn’t going to help us escape them.
Where is the love?
So I recommend that, for every complaint you find yourself making, intentionally name three things you love about your life. So if I’m feeling annoyed over a work call, I’ll remind myself of my fabulous husband, my adorable dog, and how amazing my new standing desk is. And then I think about how lucky I am to work from home where I get to hug this adorable dog whenever I’d like (and the fabulous husband, too!)
If you find you can’t quickly come up with three positive things about your life for every complaint you have, you really need to do this exercise more frequently: that shows you’re in a severe negative thinking pattern. Your negative thoughts will tell you “this is because my life is shit.” But they’re wrong. Life is just life: if we focus on the negative parts, it will feel way harder. Shifting to a positive focus will make it easier to bear, and more joyful.
Use the “bad dream” trick
A good dream is lovely. You’re flying through the air, enjoying the freedom of the breeze. But then you wake up disappointed that you can’t fly. For practical purposes, there’s nothing like a bad dream to make you feel incredibly grateful for your flawed real life. Think about those dreams where you’ve made an irrevocable mistake. Where you realize, “I’ve cheated on my spouse,” or “oh my God, I just gave myself AIDS with this needle from a diorama and I cannot undo it!” (If you can’t tell by its specificity, the second one was a nightmare I had in high school that I still remember.) There’s nothing like the sweet relief of waking up and knowing, no, I didn’t fuck up my life forever. Everything just looks so much sweeter.
If the hypotheticals don’t work for you, you can even just think back to where you were a couple of years ago, struggling through a Trump presidency and the beginning of the coronavirus pandemic. Not happy that we had to deal with all of that, but boy oh boy, aren’t you grateful it’s over… ish? Okay we still have room to improve, but the point is: it could be worse!
When all else fails, there’s always Schadenfreude
If there’s one thing New Yorkers like even more than complaining about their own lives, it’s complaining about other people. So if you’re really having a tough time listing things you’re grateful for, think about what you’re glad you don’t have to deal with. See that screaming kid in the grocery store? Not your problem. Feeling bad about yourself because you’re spending the holiday alone? Think about the liberal friend you know with twelve Republican relatives flanking them right now. There but for the grace of God go you.
Now if you’ll excuse me, I am going to go and celebrate my gratitude for my actually quite large New York kitchen by preparing to host my folks, who live just a 45-minute drive away instead of the previous six-hour flight. (I’m so grateful I don’t live in LA anymore.) And as for my negative Nancies out there: if you’re still really searching for something to be grateful for, just remember: at least you’re not a turkey.