It’s almost Thanksgiving, a time to feel and speak about the ways we’re thankful. What comes to my mind is Hayley Mills in the 1960 movie Pollyanna. She’s an orphan who is shipped off to live with a wealthy and stern aunt in a small country town. Not to be dismayed, she shares with all those around her the “glad game” her father taught her before he died. The Glad Game works like this: find something positive in every difficult situation.

Spreading Positive Emotions

In our culture today we say, “Don’t be a Pollyanna” when we refer to being overly optimistic, or worse, naïve. Is the “glad game” a denial of what’s not working, a dumb attempt to ignore struggles and be overly positively and fake? Jim Collins says, “Confront the brutal facts!” Of course, that’s important too.

However, the human spirit needs to maintain a sense of hope. We need to adapt to losses and lean into our strength even while fully feeling sadness. I go for a balance of facing the truth of a tough situation, and at the same time, look for the good and the growth that can come from it.

Pollyanna did not succeed at first in converting the negative people around her. The servants, her aunt, and the people in the small country town smirked and continued with their constant complaints and negativity about most everything. It was only when she had a serious accident and becomes crippled that she herself needed some cheering up. People came from all over the town to tell her how much her upbeat attitude had impacted them. Interesting that even when they seemed skeptical and unmoved, something inside them was changing from her modeling. And they returned her efforts by reminding her of who she was — a tough and determined change agent. A good lesson about the impact we have, even if we can’t see it.

Start a Thanksgiving Ritual

I love the practice of asking some meaningful questions over a holiday dinner. It helps people connect, feel known, and it creates a memory that deepens the experience.

Ask each person to share the usual question, “What are you most thankful for this year?”

And then play the Glad Game by further asking, “What was a struggle you faced (or are facing) and what is something good that can come out of that difficulty?” Or maybe something good already has come out of it? Keep in mind, this is not to minimize the struggle or negate how difficult it is.

Show Care for People’s Pain and Losses

Another aspect of the Glad Game is to turn your attention to those in need. The holidays seem to bring out more vulnerability in people, and you don’t have to look far to find a person facing a big loss.

Be sensitive to their loss and invite them to share about that loved one. Often we don’t think the person wants to talk about it. But really it’s the opposite. If no one brings it up, it’s like there is no awareness of their deep and painful loss, and they are carrying it alone. Invite that person to share something they miss about their loved one, something they learned from that person — whatever they want — just give them the space. It’s so isolating and hard to lose a significant other and the holiday season makes it far worse.

I liked how Pollyanna honored her father, by spreading around the principle she learned from him. Honoring those we lost in our lives gives us hope and helps us heal. And it doesn’t have to be a recent loss either. Many of us lost our parents, spouse, children, siblings, or good friends many years ago, but there is still a tender spot in our hearts for those we loved. They are still very much inside of us and an important part of who we are today.

Celebrating My Loved Ones

I lost my father on Thanksgiving Day, 1981. Tony enjoyed hosting people and carried on the many Italian traditions from his father who grew up in the old country. My high school friends will tell you they loved coming to our noisy home and smelling all the good flavors. He and my mother Kitty gave me the gift of hospitality, and I honor them as I prepare our holiday. I always use a few of her rose colored wine glasses, a symbol for my mother’s optimistic nature.

My daughter Julia is joining us from Chicago this year. Her father died in December 2016. It is still so raw and painful for her, his sisters, and me. John was a lot like my father: Invite everyone over, go over the top with food, desserts, drinks, and stay up all night telling jokes. John was Mr. Hospitality! He had a scripture painted on our kitchen fan hood, from Hebrews 13:2: “Do not forget to show hospitality to strangers, for by so doing some people have shown hospitality to angels without knowing it.” His legacy lives on in all of us, especially our daughter Julia, who is now a professional cook.

Both my sisters lost their husbands this year, and I am grateful they will both visit with us this season. I mourn Jack and Ralph, and pray for their kids and grandchildren who are struggling this holiday season. They too, however, are playing the Glad Game by telling stories about their fathers — luckily they don’t have to reach too far to find funny stories, crazy moments, and all the ways they remember the spirit and love they experienced. Jack and Ralph were amazing fathers and husbands, and I am so happy to have had them as brothers-in-law.

We need to laugh as much as we need to cry. But whether crying or laughing, it’s most healing with others.

Join the Glad Game!

Perhaps you have thought about cultivating “gratitude” as a far reach for you — too difficult or not worth the time and effort it takes. I will tell you it does take some focus, and an intentional shift in your mindset.

However, it’s based on and supported by the most recent brain research on emotional intelligence and happiness studies, and it’s well validated in biblical passages and other ancient traditions.

This is not about denial. You are not required to put a pink cloud over your head! In fact, I invite you to take stock of the realities you are facing and fully embrace those challenges. Have a conversation with a close friend and see if you can find the good or positive even in something hard. Explore the growth opportunity available to you.

Second, embrace past difficulties. Reflect on what you’ve been through and how you handled it, what it taught you. This Thanksgiving, honor those you lost and how they live on in your heart. Talk with others about the lessons they taught you and, even if they weren’t perfect, what you hold dear about the ways they impacted you. I truly believe we can best move on when we honor the past.

Feeling Grateful

Wishing you a beautiful time with your loved ones this Thanksgiving. I thank each of you, my friends, colleagues, clients, and family for your love and support. I am so blessed and, yes, feel grateful!

Finally, brothers and sisters, whatever is true, whatever is noble, whatever is right, whatever is pure, whatever is lovely, whatever is admirable—if anything is excellent or praiseworthy—think about such things.” —Philippians 4:8

Elaine Morris
Executive coach and positive intelligence expert

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Elaine Morris is a master-level emotional intelligence and executive coach who brings more than 30 years of experience to upper level executives and their teams.

Elaine Morris