Thanksgiving is one of my favorite holidays to spend at home with my family. Though my parents no longer live in my childhood home, and though I no longer live 2000 miles from home, there’s still something nostalgic about my homecoming, spending the whole day together in the kitchen, and ending it sitting around the “fancy occasion” dining table of my youth.
This year, however, my family spent Thanksgiving week in Montreal and Toronto (where, notably, Thanksgiving was celebrated last month). I was not thrilled about the travel. I enjoy family vacations, but they invariably bring out our worsts. For example, although our last vacation included a helicopter ride over dormant volcanoes, all I remember is the volcanic eruption of emotions as my mom and I argued in an all-too-small hotel room. (Does that sound like paradise? Because our vacation was in Hawaii.)
I didn’t want our Thanksgiving to be tainted by the worsts.
After losing the battle of whether or not we travel at all, I started to brainstorm ways in which I could guarantee a week we would all be grateful for. I found the answer nestled in one of my favorite psychological principles around gratitude and happiness.
I texted my family the week of the trip asking them to commit to an experiment, and all (almost unquestioningly) agreed.
We met at the airport the morning of the trip. Gathered around a coffee shop table, I announced the two-part experiment:
- Outside of flying and drive days, we had four full days in Toronto and Montreal. Each person got to own one day. They could plan it however they liked, and only had to tell us the plan the night before.
- Each person received a Gratitude and Grievance Notebook™. Whenever they liked or didn’t like something, they were to write it down in the notebook. We would air gratefulness and grievances each night before looking ahead to the next day.
Takeoff and landing were smooth, but things started to get turbulent as we waited for checked bags. It was late; we were all hungry. The carousel took forever and when we finally exited baggage claim, the group disbanded in every direction. My brother found a phone to call our airport shuttle while I searched for Uber pickup points. My mom walked off in an unnamed direction, and my dad was nowhere to be seen. I could see my brother’s temper rising, and just when I thought he would boil over, he reached into his pocket and pulled out his Gratitude and Grievance Notebook™. “Where’s my pen?” he asked in half-jest. “Follow all posted placards and signs,” he wrote as a grievance (which become a repeated grievance for my mom’s habit of walking off in random directions). I lost it—in a good way. Laughing uncontrollably, I finally got us a ride, we walked across the airport to get in it, and we were on our way.
A critical moment was during our first night, when we established our routine of airing gratitude and grievances (importantly both). The rest of the week, you often heard questions like, “Where’s my notebook?” or “I need to pack my notebook,” or “No this notebook is only for gratitude and grievances.” The notebook became a daily necessity and it was often someone else who commenced the evening ritual of sharing notes.
With each person owning and planning a day, this collaborative moment also allowed for sharing feedback and setting expectations around things we historically fight about in moments of hunger or fatigue—what to eat, how to get from one place to another, when to be ready—the simplest things.
Though plans changed each day, overall, we hit everything on every person’s list, from eating plush bagels and climbing Mont Royal on my brother’s day to taking a family photo at the top of CN tower on my mom’s, to a sibling run, visit to a history museum, and family-prepared Thanksgiving meal on mine, to finally, a Christmas market, art museum, and bookstore on my dad’s.
On our final evening, we discussed grievances for the day—and the week. On this night, unlike the first, there was more gratitude than grievance, and my mom was already planning our next vacation. Of course there had been occasional disputes (usually regarding whether to walk or Uber) and one intense conversation that was unavoidable whether we had been traveling or not. But these were each washed away with the airing and closure of each day, leaving us all with nothing but rosy retrospection.
On the plane back home, I asked each person to reflect on the effect their Gratitude and Grievance Notebook™ had on their vacation experience. For me, the notebooks afforded a platform through which my family could express their feelings in a healthy way (a skill we often lack). They also introduced humor to moments that are historically tense (for example, someone announcing, “Oh my god. I need my notebook,” while everyone else joked about what they might be writing down). The notebooks also gave us a way to thank one another and appreciate little moments that are typically taken for granted. For example, my mom’s Day 2 gratitude, “I like that you made a list and took us to the grocery store. It set us up well for snacks and the Airbnb.” That was enough for me for the week (and was especially helpful when my mom aired her grievances on how I lost my credit card and driver’s license on Day 6).
Now, back home, while I have my lists from the past week, my gratitude can all be summed up in one word: family. I’m grateful for family members that are passionate about their individual views, but come together as a unit when it matters most. I’m appreciative of a family who is open to trying new things. I love that we are light-hearted enough to try simple tricks for increasing happiness and harmony. And I feel lucky that each person leads, first and foremost, with empathy. And while this has likely been there all along, perhaps it is not something I would have recognized while sitting around that dining table from our youth, during a routine Thanksgiving meal.