This Thanksgiving, don't merely 'survive' your fill-in-the-blank family

This Thanksgiving, don't merely 'survive' your fill-in-the-blank family
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Every year around this time, publications run pieces on how to survive Thanksgiving with your (fill-in-the-blank) family. It always centers on politics. Can Republicans and Democrats — or even feuding camps within the parties — break bread together without disaster and scalded cranberry sauce?

We are a polarized nation, and that polarization runs straight through plenty of families. But frankly, I find this focus on “survival” rather sad. Life is so much bigger than politics. To dread talking with someone you have a lifelong relationship with, because you disagree about one aspect of life, is to give politics more mental space than it deserves.

Does the political matter? Of course. But for most people, tight social ties will affect life more than much of what is happening on the Hill — to say nothing of what is happening on cable news shows.

Research is increasingly finding that close relationships with friends and family affect not just happiness, but health and longevity. People with tight social ties live longer. Some of this is no doubt correlative. Healthy people are more likely to get married, and they have the energy to visit friends, but some is directly causal. Friends and family nudge you to take care of yourself — to do that Turkey Trot or lay off the eggnog — and they take care of you when you’re sick. In terms of longevity, having tight ties vs. not is much akin to not smoking vs. doing so like a chimney.

Very little in the way of public policy ever approaches that. But even the weighty stuff that does is seldom what causes Thanksgiving table dread. (If yours is the rare family that has a nuanced discussion comparing the differences between, say, the UK and French model of health care delivery, then you can stop reading now). Those discussions are more about the who-did-what, who-said-what and the “But remember when Bill ClintonWilliam (Bill) Jefferson ClintonDe Blasio pitches himself as tough New Yorker who can take on 'Don the con' WANTED: A Republican with courage Democratic leaders' impeachment tightrope MORE…” lines of argument. They are ephemeral.

Quick quiz: Do you remember what the big argument of the day was exactly 90 days ago? No? I’m sure it irritated people who pay attention to these things a great deal. But 3 months on, it’s hard to remember what it was.

Keeping an eye on the big picture means remembering how little any of this matters. It’s also about recognizing that the spirit of Thanksgiving is one of gratitude, which psychological research finds goes hand-in-hand with humility. Much political arguing is premised on the belief that the angels are on one’s side. Humility means recognizing that none of us is right about everything. Most people believe what they believe for what they view as legitimate reasons. Indeed, if our lives had been theirs, we might believe what they believe too.

This mindset of gratitude and humility calls for taking ourselves a bit less seriously. We are spinning on an improbable planet in the middle of cold space. Furthermore, nothing said at the Thanksgiving table will change much in the outside world, or even change anyone’s minds. I’m not sure anyone’s mind in history has been changed by yelling at that person that he is wrong. All that lasts after the dishes are cleared away is whether the relationships around the table have been nurtured or harmed.

That is more within one’s control than whether the turkey cooks in 4 hours or 4.5 hours. It’s hard to fight with someone who refuses to fight back. Instead, moving beyond politics means not taking the bait. It means recognizing that the one thing even cantankerous people like to talk about more than politics is themselves. To focus on nurturing the relationship, rather than the political, is to turn the conversation that way. “Oh Uncle Harry, you’re always so passionate about your beliefs. I admire that in you. Say, John didn’t know you’d worked as a firefighter. Didn’t you once have to put out a house fire started by someone trying to fry a turkey?”

With any luck, this tale can go straight through to dessert, and leave everyone feeling warmed, and not just by the wine. That happy feeling comes from knowing you didn’t just survive, you thrived with your fill-in-the-blank family. You put the political back in its place.

Laura Vanderkam is the author of several time management books including, most recently, "I Know How She Does It," published by Penguin Random House. She blogs at