To truly realize all the benefits and the power of gratitude, we need to move from simple reciprocity and just feeling grateful (a fleeting emotion) to being grateful people. According to the research, actively and intentionally practicing gratitude does the following:
- Helps us cope with stress
- Regulates our emotions
- Makes us happier
- Improves our health (mental and physical)
- Nurtures relationships
- Activates learning
So how do we cultivate a grateful disposition in ourselves, and how do we develop this in our learners?
Gratitude Practices in Our Learning Communities
The most common practice is a gratitude journal, but we are all unique and dynamic, and there are many practices to choose from. I use the three social and emotional learning signature practices from the Collaborative for Academic, Social, and Emotional Learning (CASEL) whenever I work with kids or adults:
- Welcoming inclusion activity
- Engaging strategies
- Optimistic closure
While the signature practices are not always specific to gratitude, I like to incorporate gratitude into one of the practices, and I like to provide variety.
3 Gratitude Practices to Use With Learners
1. Gratitude wall. This cultivates appreciating the good in others. I want to be a gratitude mentor in our learning community, and one way I do this is by focusing on my praise-to-correction ratio. As a psychology major, I was taught that we should recognize positive behavior six times more than we recognize negative behavior. That’s a lot of praise! And while experts don’t always agree on the exact ratio, the point is that we want to overwhelmingly express appreciation for the good.
Obviously, if there is a safety issue or an impact on other learners, we address it, but do we really need to call out every minor issue? No, we don’t, and doing so usually does more to damage relationships than to change behavior.
As we model appreciating the good in others, we can create a gratitude wall and encourage everyone to add photos, sketches, and notes sharing who they’re grateful for and why they are grateful for that person. A possible welcoming inclusion activity would be to give each learner a sticky note to write or draw about someone they are grateful for and add it to the wall.
2. Positive affirmations. This cultivates appreciating the good in ourselves. We often think of gratitude as other-focused, and that is definitely part of the power of gratitude. But it’s a myth that gratitude means we have to be completely self-effacing. We can be grateful for ourselves, and positive affirmations are a wonderful way to nurture self-awareness, confidence, and a strengths-based mindset. We may struggle to see the good in ourselves, so here are a couple of tools to help us identify our strengths:
After discussing character strengths as a class, we can give learners time to discuss their strengths with a peer and ask them to capture their top five character strengths. We can then revisit these strengths regularly through positive affirmations.
3. Notice-think-feel-do. This cultivates gratitude as a habit. Regularly capturing and sharing the things we are thankful for is an excellent way to develop gratitude as a habit and nurture relationships. This can happen in a variety of formats, but first consider how essential it is that, whatever practice we choose (for ourselves and for our learners), it’s done with intention. Notice-think-feel-do are the four essential components of the gratitude experience identified by psychologist Andrea Hussong. To get started, have learners pick something that they are grateful for, and have them respond to the prompts below.
- What do you notice in your life that you can be grateful for?
- Think deeply about why you have been given this thing you value.
- How do you feel about the thing you have been given?
- What can you do to express appreciation?
We can use these prompts to teach the importance of authenticity and specificity while also tapping into the true benefits of gratitude. We can also use this as an opportunity to build our emotions vocabulary by really striving for granularity as we describe how we feel.
When it comes to the do, we can give individuals choice for how they express their appreciation. This will vary from person to person, and age/stage is also a factor. For example, younger learners may prefer notes and drawings, whereas adolescents may prefer social media posts, emails, texts, etc.
Even More Ways to Practice
In gratitude, as in all aspects of our lives, we see that a one-size-fits-all approach is not effective. In my latest book, Evolving With Gratitude, the contributors and I share many more gratitude practices. There are endless options: We can pick the practices that are right for us and our learning community and adapt as needed. There are people all over the world practicing gratitude personally and professionally, but there is no one way to do it.
The important thing is that we make gratitude a priority for the sake of individual and collective flourishing. Your commitment to experiencing and expressing gratitude will have untold ripple effects, making your life and the lives of those we serve better.