By Wendy Baron, MA
“Gratefulness not only changes your life, but also extends beyond your intimate sphere. It gives rise to compassion, kindness, forgiveness, and empathy, and thus informs how we treat others and how we act in the larger world.”
~ Kristi Nelson
What is Gratitude?
a feeling of being thankful and appreciative
When we are thankful and appreciative, that warm, fuzzy hormone oxytocin is released in our body, promoting feelings of love and wellbeing. And, although gratitude is indeed a pleasant emotion, feeling grateful is a conscious choice, a way of seeing and interacting with the world. To live with an attitude of gratitude, we need to choose it over and over and over and over again. Even when we are feeling hopeless. Even when we are feeling afraid. Even when we are grieving.
To cultivate an attitude of gratitude, we start with the intention to pay attention to the good things in life, the learning opportunities, and our attitudes and behaviors. Then, we consciously reflect on something for which we are grateful. By exploring the “why” in each individual gratitude, we find deeper meaning and connectedness that enriches our sense of happiness and fosters our resilience in the face of adversity.
A Gratitude Practice
Begin by settling into a comfortable position, and take a few deep, relaxing breaths. Bring awareness to a person you are grateful for…someone who has inspired you, done something kind for you, supported you, or perhaps mentored you—and to whom you have not yet expressed your gratitude. This might be a friend, family member, co-worker, teacher, or someone in your community. Allow yourself to visualize this person’s actions and think deeply about why you feel such gratitude.
Now, take a moment to express your gratitude in writing. Describe what this person has done that makes you grateful, how s/he has impacted your life, and how it has made you feel.
Read the letter out loud to this person or send it off as a text, email, or letter. The impact is powerful, as you’ll see in this short video of teens expressing their gratitude to people they’ve been wanting to thank.
Gratitude Builds Resilience
“Processing a life experience through a grateful lens does not mean denying negativity. It is not a form of superficial ‘happiology.’ Instead, it means realizing the power you have to transform an obstacle into an opportunity. It means reframing a loss into a potential gain, recasting negativity into positive channels for gratitude.”
Dr. Robert Emmons
Co-Director of Greater Good Science Center Gratitude Project
Sometimes, events and situations in life evoke feelings of remorse, worry, anxiety, or disappointment in ourselves. Yet, when we reflect on a past situation or event in terms of what we’ve learned from that experience and how that has supported and shaped us, we build up a sort of psychological immune system that cushions us when we fall.
Try this by recalling a challenge you had at work that eventually was solved.
- What lesson or lessons did that experience offer you?
- What ability did the experience draw out that surprised you or was unexpected?
- Are there ways you have become a better educator because of it?
Check in. How are you feeling now regarding this event or situation? Has anything shifted for you?
“We delight in the beauty of the butterfly, but rarely admit the changes it has gone through to achieve that beauty.”
When we see that our struggles have a purpose and makes us stronger, the potential deleterious effects of stress are transformed into positive growth. Celebrating mistakes leads to a growth mindset, fosters our willingness to persevere, and instills confidence in our ability to learn and grow. Transforming stress into a learning builds resilience.
Gratitude, A Matter of Perspective
“I’m noticing some big wins here! If we look at the trends—the mean is going up.
This is something to celebrate! Let’s share the good news!”
My colleague, a data specialist working with middle school principals, shared that she is working to change the narrative about student achievement. Instead of measuring how far the students are from something—such as an achievement goal…she is sharing the bright spots, the big wins. She is spinning the story towards gratitude.
Gratefulness doesn’t mean being okay with what’s not working. In this case, by shifting perceptions of student achievement from failure to gratitude, the students and staff are likely to improve performance, because how people feel profoundly influences the way they perform.
“When I started counting my blessings, my whole life turned around.”
Making gratitude a regular practice improves our overall health and wellbeing.
Dr. Robert Emmons, University of California at Davis
and Dr. Jeffrey Froh, Hofstra University
It’s much easier to have an attitude of gratitude when things are going smoothly. This year, with the global pandemic, the challenges of distance learning, the increasing climate-related disasters, and intensifying racial injustices and political divide, I have found that living with an attitude of gratitude has taken even more strength, conscious choice, and generosity of heart than ever before.
We all have people in our lives for whom we’re grateful, events and situation, mentors and those who have helped us. Keep a gratitude journal of the good things in your life and notice how much happier you feel. Express gratitude to the people who have made your life better and bathe in feelings of love and connectedness. Adopt new behaviors as a result of interacting with those who have helped you, and notice you have more empathy, less judgment, and greater appreciation for life itself. Finally, embody gratitude by placing one hand over your heart and lovingly listen with attentive presence and appreciation to whatever comes your way.
Wendy Baron, MA is a teacher, author, researcher, coach, and leader in the field of social and emotional learning (SEL). Wendy co-founded the Santa Cruz/Silicon Valley New Teacher Project and New Teacher Center after 13 years of classroom teaching. Wendy facilitates professional learning, produces webinars, engages in research, and writes about mentoring, leadership, and social, emotional, academic development (SEAD). She currently supports teachers, school and district leaders in SEL, teaches restorative practices and conscious communication classes at 1440 Multiversity, and presents at national conferences with a focus on improving health and wellbeing through connected relationships.