Thanksgiving can mean a lot of things, from the usual turkey feast to more idiosyncratic and potentially stressful traditions like a Black Friday campout or a death-defying deep fry. The holiday varies from person to person and family to family, causing real problems for anyone who wants to contemplate the True Meaning of Thanksgiving. Has the national celebration of football and shopping overtaken the giving-thanks part of it all? Is Thanksgiving kind of a downer? How would you even know?
For that one day, people were more thankful and felt more positiveLuckily, we don't have to guess. We've got psychology.
For answers, we turn to a sub-discipline called positive psychology, which deals primarily in questions of happiness and well-being. It's produced a number of studies on exactly how Thanksgiving makes people feel, and for the most part, the news is good. It’s also more nuanced than you might expect: the discipline has largely moved past generalizations like the "holiday blues," which posited a widespread jump in depression between Thanksgiving and New Years. A battery of recent studies have challenged that assumption, tracking well-being on a day-to-day basis and finding fascinating subtleties in the competing feelings associated with the holiday season.
One paper published in The Journal of Positive Psychology this February followed 172 college students for the three weeks around Thanksgiving, tracking gratitude, positive affect, and life statisfaction through diary-style entries. Researchers saw a significant bump in both gratitude and positive affect on Thanksgiving: for that one day, people were more thankful and felt more positive overall.
Without gratitude, the holiday stress became overwhelming
It makes sense, given the long-standing correlation between gratitude and positive affect — but the study didn’t stop there. Once researchers controlled for gratitude, imagining a Thanksgiving-like day without the bump in that sentiment, things got messy. Levels of related readings like life satisfaction and "meaning in life" plummeted. Negative affect jumped up. This makes a certain sense too: Thanksgiving is filled with stressful factors, whether it’s travel, family conflicts, or high-stakes cooking, any of which could easily chip away at a person’s sense of well-being. The result is a kind of Thanksgiving parable in research form. Without all the gratitude in the air, the holiday stress became overwhelming.
tweets indicate a jump in overall well-being
For other researchers, an easier way to peer into the soul of the holiday is to look at Twitter. This graph from a study published in a journal called Social Networking this April tracks shopping-related tweets during Thanksgiving, with a major Black Friday-related spike visible on the midnight after Thanksgiving itself. Overall, shopping tweets are dwarfed by general gratitude tweets, and more importantly, peak dinner hours see almost no shopping tweets at all, even while global traffic spikes. Shopping may be an important part of the holiday, but if tweets are any indication, people aren’t talking about it much during dinner hours. More importantly, tweets indicate a jump in overall well-being. A separate study from Indiana University monitored Twitter for changes in mood during various events like Christmas and Election Day. During Thanksgiving, the researchers saw a huge uptick in the "vigor" metric, which reflects a general sense of energy and enthusiasm. The measure leapt more than four standard deviations above the norm and confirming much of what the earlier diary study suggested. Whatever else is happening, people are excited to sit down and eat.
To be fair, these results are based only on self-reported measurements and social media, both flawed metrics when it comes to the complexities of human psychology. Still, the studies do give us a window into the general spirit of the holiday. Despite all the family feuds and travel woes, a sense of gratitude is still at the center of it all, and it does more than you might think to soften the holiday stress. Think of it as a reminder to be thankful, courtesy of your local psychology lab.