Don’t Ask “What Are You Thankful For?” Try This Instead

Whether you’re enjoying a virtual holiday this year or will be enjoying your family and friends in person, nearly every Thanksgiving has this tradition in common: saying what you are thankful for. Like so many out there, I love the intent of this custom. Gratefulness is important. It has been proven to increase happiness and make us more resilient to stress. 

However, I recommend a reframe of the question to help us all have a happier, more positive holiday season (and beyond).

Why Change The Question?

How many times have you sat around the table and had everyone say, “Family” or “Health” one after another for what they are grateful for this year? Whether it is our herding instincts making us feel like we have to say the same thing as everyone else or we are otherwise just going through the motions, this shows that our responses have become a habit.

Your subconscious brain loves predictability. While a guest on The Brainy Business podcast, Professor Wendy Wood explained how 95 percent of decisions are made out of habit. When you ask the same question year after year, the brain will develop more of an automatic response. The consequence is you don’t really internalize the gratefulness the question is intended to trigger. 

How do you know if something is a habit? As Dr. Wood explained to me in our interview, whenever you can be thinking of something else while you are doing a task it is a habit. While you are answering the “What are you thankful for?” question, are you thinking about watching the game later or which type of pie you want to try first? 

If so, you are in habit-land.

Why Do We Ask This?

Thankfully, asking a different question can help you get to a different result. In order to find the best new question to ask, you want to start by considering why we ask this at all. Yes, it is about reflection and considering what has gone well in the past year, but why? What is the goal? 

In my mind, the root of this custom is to encourage us to be more grateful and generous at the holidays and ideally throughout the year. Clearly, the stagnant question isn’t doing the job anymore. 

A New Question: What Can I Do To Make Others Thankful?

Instead of reflecting on what has already happened and going with the motions, I recommend a proactive question. By instead asking, “What can I do to make others thankful?” (or some variation of this) you are looking to the future and giving to those around you. 

  • improve moods
  • reduce stress and anxiety
  • have a positive effects on physical health
  • help us live longer

And, beyond benefits for ourselves, asking this question may encourage us to take that action and support someone else. 

Really think about that question; What will you do to make others thankful? (Adding the action of “will” instead of something like “could” is intentional here as it makes it more likely you will do something instead of just thinking about it.) 

This could be business related:

  • Who can you be a mentor for? 
  • Can you say something nice about a coworker or employee to their boss?
  • What can you do to make your customers thankful?
  • What attention can you provide to your kids that will make them thankful?
  • Is there an activity your significant other would love to do, but you have been putting off?
  • What friends or relatives would be delighted to receive a physical card from you in the mail?

Imagine the positive ripples if we all ask this better, more proactive question this holiday season (or any time of year). To kick things off, I want to ask that same question one more time: What will you do to make others thankful this week?

The opinions expressed here by columnists are their own, not those of

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