Recipe for a Happy Thanksgiving

By Jim Tonkowich Published on November 24, 2021

’Tis the season to open up my overflowing Thanksgiving recipe folder and rummage around for turkey, sides, and desserts. Herb roasted turkey with apple cider gravy, chestnut stuffing, Brussels sprouts hash with caramelized shallots, and apple pie served with homemade cinnamon ice cream, oh, my.

This year, in addition to finding recipes, I’ve also been preparing for Thanksgiving by reading Robin Phillips’ book Gratitude in Life’s Trenches: How to Experience the Good Life Even When Everything is Going Wrong.

Combining modern psychology with the ancient Church Fathers, George MacDonald, and his own experience of everything going wrong, Phillips offers an antidote to what has become our chronic and toxic lack of gratitude.

Let’s face it, for the most part, Thanksgiving Day or no Thanksgiving Day, we’re not thankful people. Faced with blessings that abound, we always seem to want more.

We need some help and Phillips provides a buffet of thanksgiving ideas. Here’s a sampling.

Some Thanksgiving Ideas

First, focus on what you have to be thankful about not what others have to be thankful for. That is, avoid spending your mental energy comparing yourself to others.

Phillips cites a recent study showing what any thinking person should have guessed: “people who compare their incomes to those of others were less happy with what they had.” Comparison results in envy and envy destroys thanksgiving and that destroys happiness.

And what applies to income applies to professional success, fame, a happy marriage, the number of children and their achievements, our town or the house, who we’re friends with. It can even be the Thanksgiving dinner you’re preparing compared with the ones your friends post on Instagram or Facebook.

And speaking of Instagram and Facebook, Phillips shows how “Social media use breeds envy.” While the news about the harm caused by social media seems recent, it’s not. Phillips cites a study from 2014 that “showed that the more time one spends on Facebook, the greater the likelihood that she will compare herself to others and experience depressive symptoms as a result.” And depressed people are not thankful people.

Why We Should be Grateful

In addition to comparing, gratitude dies when we assume that we deserve a happy, comfortable life with the means to do as we please. The world around us encourages us to do just that. Ever since 1971 we’ve been told that “You deserve a break today.” A March 2021 article argues that the L’Oréal tag line — also from the ‘70s — “Because I’m worth it,” “galvanized a generation of women to put themselves first.” The author of that article believes this is a good thing.

But if I deserve it, if I’ve earned it, if I’m “worth it,” whence gratitude? Why should I thank God or anyone else since I should have the finer things in life? Denying me any good I desire is wrong. I deserve what I want. Thus our entitlement culture pushes gratitude to the margins and finally into oblivion. Why would I be thankful for what is mine by right?

Yet we don’t always get what we want, what we imagine is ours by rights. What happens when we get things we don’t want instead? When life hands us suffering instead of “infinite joy and merriment”? Sickness instead of health? Financial ruin rather than riches? Failure rather than success? Rejection rather than enthusiastic love and acceptance?

If we believe deserve only good things, we become irritable, angry, depressed, and even suicidal. Thanksgiving? You must be kidding.

In Christ We Get Everything

The good news is that there is another way: a way of gratitude even in what Robin Phillips calls “life’s trenches.” He notes, “Only when we accept that life is difficult, only when we come to terms with the fact that we have no right to be comfortable, happy, or prosperous, can we be truly grateful.” And only then can we be truly happy. After all, Jesus who presumably wants us to be happy promised, “In the world you have tribulation” (John 16:33).

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Too often we forget that all of life — and life itself — is free grace. We deserve nothing yet, in Christ, we get everything.

With some similar idea in mind, G. K. Chesterton wrote, “When it comes to life the critical thing is whether you take things for granted or take them with gratitude.”

Taking things for granted is a Thanksgiving recipe for disaster.

Taking things with gratitude, as Chesterton also said, results in “happiness doubled by wonder.”

The choice is ours on Thanksgiving Day and every day that follows it.

May you have a blessed day of heartfelt thanksgiving and “happiness doubled by wonder.”


Dr. James Tonkowich, a senior contributor to The Stream, is a freelance writer, speaker and commentator on spirituality, religion and public life. He is the author of The Liberty Threat: The Attack on Religious Freedom in America Today and Pears, Grapes, and Dates: A Good Life After Mid-Life. Jim serves as Director of Distance Learning at Wyoming Catholic College and is host of the college’s weekly podcast, “The After Dinner Scholar.”

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