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WHAT WORKS IN EDUCATION The George Lucas Educational Foundation
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Gratitude Builds Character and Health

Maurice Elias

Prof. of Psychology, Director, Rutgers Social-Emotional Learning Lab, Director, the Collaborative Center for Community-Based Research and Service

If your family is like most families, you took a few moments on Thanksgiving to give thanks for your food, the company of those around the table, and for the good things that happened in the past year. Many of you did this even though it may have not been such a good year, and perhaps you lost people who had been around the table only a year ago, so full of life.

Be assured that this simple act of gratitude is being shown by more and more research to be very healthy for you and for those around you. It's not a vaccination; doing it once a year does not provide the most health benefits. Expressing gratitude is like taking a daily vitamin. Its health benefits require consistency and repetition to yield maximum effect.

Don't take my word for it! Researchers like Robert Emmons, Martin Seligman, Monica Bartlett, and David DeSteno, as well as studies funded by the John Templeton Foundation, have found that keeping a daily gratitude journal, showing appreciation when others give you even minor help, and delivering overdue gratitude to someone who helped you a long time ago all have beneficial effects; those expressions of gratitude that directly involve others often move them to be more appreciative of and helpful to the next people they may meet.

Your gratitude must be genuine, but it need not be earthshaking. Thanking someone for listening to you, for how they prepare food, or for how they tell a story, or noting in your gratitude journal small things for which you are grateful that you might otherwise take for granted (such as a comfortable chair, the way the sunlight enters your room in the morning, or for the energy to get up and start exercising) all can make a positive difference in your life and the lives of those for whom you are grateful.

For teachers, the message is clear: Don't be stingy with your appreciation. Show gratitude for things you "expect" to happen, such as children putting their things where they are supposed to, paying attention, sitting relatively quietly, asking good questions, helping classmates, turning in their homework on time, reading or speaking clearly in class. You will find that these actions will become much more contagious and your students will feel better about themselves and being in school. Note that expressions of gratitude are not the same as praise. They are personal statements from you to your students saying how their actions help you and/or the class in some tangible way.

Giving thanks on Thanksgiving has character and mental health benefits that can be greatly extended as we make the expression of gratitude a regular part of our daily lives -- and integrate it into school life as well.

Maurice Elias

Prof. of Psychology, Director, Rutgers Social-Emotional Learning Lab, Director, the Collaborative Center for Community-Based Research and Service
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