Every year in my Religion classes, we start the new school year with my favorite lesson - The Science Behind Gratitude. We spend a few days talking about gratitude and how it affects the brain, watching videos on gratitude, and then putting it into practice ourselves. Students are asked to identify one person in their lives who they are grateful for and write a letter to them expressing that gratitude. I explain to the students that they can give the letter to that person or keep it themselves. Some give it away, others keep it, and some sneak it into my recycling bin on their way out the door. Why do I continue to do this lesson? Because I believe gratitude can change your life.
Positive psychologist Martin Seligman conducted a study and found that practicing gratitude only one time produced an “immediate increase in happiness and 35% reduction in depressive symptoms.” One action of gratitude for a 35% reduction? Count me in!
Growing up Catholic, I think my faith greatly influenced my natural ability to find the good in every situation. I was taught to always look up to Heaven, thank Jesus for what I had, and give to those in need. All of those are good things, but I eventually realized my view of gratitude was so small. Gratitude is defined as, “the quality of being thankful; readiness to show appreciation for and to return kindness.” It can sometimes be easy to simply say thank you when you’ve been given a gift or compliment, but what about finding something to be grateful for when your life isn’t going as planned or something tragic has happened? I think real, courageous gratitude comes from those hard places.
Every single person can practice gratitude. In my classroom, this is something I focus on. Besides that lesson at the beginning of the year, I’m always telling students to find five things they’re grateful for and write it down. Kids understand real emotions, like gratitude, so much more than we give them credit. One of my former students recently wrote me a letter and told me how I introduced her to the concept of gratitude, how she has continued it into high school, and how much it has changed her life. I do not take credit for this in any way, but I do believe that modeling gratitude and giving kids the opportunity to practice it has the ability to shape their lives. This is not something I teach about every day, but a practice I return to often as a reminder for them to always focus on gratitude.
We all know that saying thank you is good manners, but putting gratitude into practice creates connection with those around you. Gratitude in and of itself is an experience that pushes you outside yourself and builds more positive relationships in your life. In an article by Christian Jarrett, he explained a recent study done that showed how practicing gratitude physically changes the brain. Researchers found that when people expressed gratitude more often, they had more activity throughout their brain. The more activity, the better we feel.
Putting the science of this aside, gratitude has the ability to give us deeper and more meaningful connections in our lives. My favorite quote says, “Gratitude turns what we have into enough.” This practice can be as simple as writing a letter each month to someone you’re grateful for or thanking them for something they did. If you want to take it a step
further, write down five things you’re grateful for at the end of each day. Some days it may only include sunshine or the warm cup of coffee you never had to reheat for once. To you those things may seem so small, but it’s better to write down five small things and look at the positives in your day. Focusing our mind on the positives in our life and expressing gratitude to those around us has the ability to shift your perspective and change how you’re feeling. I firmly believe that if I can get a group of eighth graders to write down five things they’re grateful for, you can do anything.
Here are some journal prompts to start practicing gratitude in you and your family’s lives: