Science Fiction and the Search for Gratitude on Thanksgiving


I only have one rule for this blog - reference one finding from psychology and one work of science fiction in every post. 

When I sat down to write a Thanksgiving article, it was easy to quote research on gratitude. Psychologist Sonja Lyubomirsky calls gratitude a "metastrategy for achieving happiness". Experimental research has revealed that participants who were asked to count their blessing once a week for ten weeks felt more optimistic, more satisfied with their lives, had better health, exercised more, and reported fewer headaches, acne, coughing, and nausea than control groups. Collectively, research indicates that gratitude helps you:

  1. appreciate life's joys 
  2. increase self-esteem 
  3. cope under extreme stress 
  4. nurture resilience in the face of loss and trauma 
  5. foster altruism 
  6. build social relationships 
  7. undo negative emotions 
  8. combat hedonic adaptation

It doesn't take much either - practicing gratitude just once a week leads to improved physical and mental health. You can write in a journal, share your thoughts with a loved one, write letters (even if they aren't sent), make gratitude calls, or a bunch of other things. Giving thanks is really, really, really good for you! 

So that's the psychology part of the post - easy as pie.

It was a lot harder to write about Thanksgiving in science fiction. I couldn't think of any science fiction story that directly relates to gratitude (Back to the Future was a contender), turkeys, Native Americans (I considered Chakotay episodes from Star Trek: Voyager), or pilgrims (Scott Pilgrim unfortunately doesn't count).  

A Google search for "science fiction Thanksgiving" led me to a fun scifi Thanksgiving grace by John Scalzi. Here's a sample: 

We also thank you for once again not allowing our technology to gain sentience, to launch our own missiles at us, to send a robot back in time to kill the mother of the human resistance, to enslave us all, and finally to use our bodies as batteries. That doesn't even make sense from an energy-management point of view, Lord, and you'd think the robots would know that. But in your wisdom, you haven't made it an issue yet, so thank you.

I loved the humor, but it didn’t help me crack this story. 

Then I thought about the Buzz Lightyear balloon in the Macy's Thanksgiving Day Parade…that did nothing but kill time.  

Buzz Lightyear in the 2010 Macy's Thanksgiving Day Parade. 

Buzz Lightyear in the 2010 Macy's Thanksgiving Day Parade. 

I had the idea of writing about all the science fiction films I'm grateful for this year (Hunger Games, Avengers, Looper), but then I couldn't stop thinking about how disappointed I was with Prometheus

Ultimately, I was inspired by this clip from last week’s Saturday Night Live:

SNL reminded me that Thanksgiving isn't just about gratitude and food, it's also about being stuck at home with your family. Then I knew immediately what episode to write about - Star Trek: The Next Generation's "Family".

The episode takes place right after the U.S.S. Enterprise stops a Borg invasion. The crew is stuck in Earth orbit while the ship is being repaired. Captain Picard decides to visit his estranged brother, Worf gets an unexpected (and unwanted) visit from his adopted parents, and Wesley watches a message his deceased father made for him shortly before he died.

Everything about Thanksgiving is captured here. The dread of being stuck in uncomfortable situations (Worf: "I am not looking forward to this…I wish they would come so it would begin and end sooner."), realizing that you have changed while your home has not (Picard: "Everything is exactly as I remember it. The house, hills, every tree, every bush seems untouched by the passage of time."), and reminders of those who are no longer with you (Dr. Crusher: "Jack recorded a holographic message for Wesley just after he was born. It was a gift for him when he grew up. Jack was going to make many more of them - he never had the chance."). 

The episode isn't just about the mess of families (though there is plenty of that), it's about the dialectics of them. Dialectical thinking refers to understanding ideas through relationships (e.g. we know light because of dark, up because of down). It’s about searching for what is being left out and honoring the wisdom in two opposing perspectives. So often strong feelings associated with the holidays get us stuck on one side of a dialectic ("it's going to be awkward, boring, and sad"). Yes, being with your family is awkward and it's also comforting. You might be bored as well as excited about your family's holiday traditions. Reflecting on relatives you have lost is sad while it also reminds you of the joy they brought to your life.

Ultimately, the characters in this episode are able to experience gratitude once they embrace their family's dialectics. For Picard, it's a matter of understanding the disagreement and similarity between him and his brother (see the clip below). Worf must integrate the distance and closeness he feels for his parents. Wesley balances the sadness and admiration he has for his father. 

You can probably find similar dialectics in your own family (I feel a lot like Worf this time of year). Embracing the mess of our families, both the good and bad, will not only help us enjoy our Thanksgiving, but it will also increase the chance of experiencing gratitude for the time we have with our loved ones today.