George Lucas Educational Foundation
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Gratitude Builds Character and Health

Maurice J. Elias

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

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Maurice J. Elias

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

Comments (7) Sign in or register to comment Follow Subscribe to comments via RSS

Ms.Garcia's picture
High School English Teacher from Navajo Nation

I think I might naturally do this later in the afternoon when the caffeine has fully hit my blood stream, but I don't know if I express my gratitude enough to my 2nd hour. I plan to deliberately do this each morning and find at least three ways to thank my students. I hope this will help improve our class atmosphere.

Miss G's picture
Miss G
parent and tutor

I've implemented gratitude in our classroom, 9-12, and the kids really love it. It's apart of their daily journal entry. It's newly implemented and after our return from thanksgiving break, the teacher forgot to list that as apart of the journal entry and one of our students asked, "What about what we are thankful for?" They wanted to express gratitude!!! I knew at that moment I started a good thing! :-)

Becky Fisher's picture
Becky Fisher
Education Consultant

I love the idea of keeping a daily gratitude journal. Or even once a week. Ask students to write what they are grateful for that week, and teachers need to participate too! The more we realize what we are grateful for, the more we appreciate the day-to-day. Also, in some studies of the power of positive psychology, gratitude has been linked to health benefits. Stay grateful and thankful and stay healthy!

Dan Callahan's picture
Dan Callahan
Professional Learning Specialist, Edcamper, Graduate Professor

I love the idea of reinforcing gratitude for teachers just as much as for students. Ms. Garcia, I'd love to hear if you think showing gratitude to your 2nd hour class has any meaningful effects on the overall tone of the class.

Samer Rabadi's picture
Samer Rabadi
Online Community Engagement Manager

Maurice, you make a great point about the daily practice of gratitude. It's one of those that things that -- with consistent, daily practice -- the benefits build over time. A day, a month, a year, a decade of "taking your vitamins" and you'll see amazing results.

Teresa Osbourne's picture
Teresa Osbourne
GATE Teacher and Mentor

There was a study done that practicing gratitude everyday actually trains the brain to proactively seek out things to be grateful for even when not actively practicing gratitude. I have integrated this into the classroom by having students write down three things at the end of each day they are grateful for that are a) unique to that day b) something significant.

I do this with every new class each year and it is amazing how quickly it produces noticeable transformation in the students behavior, mood and overall outlook on life and school. They come into the classroom initially with what I call 'default programming' which is whatever their parents and society have conditioned into them. When they leave my class at the end of the year, they are permanently wired to look for opportunities to be grateful and interpret things positively. It is truly a beautiful thing. I got the idea from this phenomenal TED talk: In the video he goes into all the science and research behind it which is really excellent and helps show that it's not just my perception, but actually based on proven psychological principles.

I was also influenced quite heavily by the work of Dr. Barbara De Angelis in the area of gratitude as well. She makes a lot of great distinctions about practicing gratitude that I hadn't heard mentioned anywhere else and that really gave me some great ideas for practicing it authentically instead of just on a surface level. There a summary of some of the core principles she talks about outlined here: Her perspective has been really helpful for me to more deeply understand the intricacies of a 'true' gratitude practice and has been indispensable in helping me explain it to students. They always come up with great questions that challenge what I think I know about it.

Loved this article Maurice, thank you.


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