the quality of being thankful; readiness to show appreciation for and to return kindness
When I began my journey into the world of education, I expected many things. I expected poverty and privilege, difficulty turning in homework and students who felt it was too easy, poor behavior and stars, and the like. However, the last thing I expected to find (particularly on the economically devastated, rural coast of Oahu) was a pervasive sense of entitlement. I have found over the last few years in the classroom (in Texas, Hawaii, and Oregon) that many of my students have a deep feeling of privilege in some sense. They feel that they are owed certain things. They refuse books that are in poor condition and throw out papers that have folded corners or a small scribble of ink. They end up wasting much because of this sentiment. They feel they are owed grades rather than understanding the need to earn them. They think that second chances are a given rather than a gift. This was (is) a problem.
Above all, I seek for my students to be happy and successful. I believe that education- of the mind, body, and soul- is an integral part of ensuring this. It became apparent to me very quickly that this sense of entitlement was hindering their achievement of these goals. So, how to fix it? I tried reasoning with them: “The paper is still perfectly good! There is plenty of space to write.” “I didn’t give you an F; you haven’t turned in a single assignment.” And so on. But nothing was changing.
This struggle with my students came at a time of struggle for happiness in my own life. Due to a myriad of things, it was hard to for me to wake up with a smile and some days even get out of bed at all. And then I found it: GRATITUDE. Such a simple concept really; saying thank you is nearly a robotic response a great deal of the time. It’s just a programmed answer like “How are you? Fine and you?” But true gratitude was exactly what I, and my students, needed.
Gratitude is a concept that has been around since, at the very least, the biblical ages. There are over twenty-three references to being thankful in the Psalms alone. In Ephesians 5:4, it states, “Nor should there be obscenity, foolish talk or coarse joking, which are out of place, but rather thanksgiving.” Being grateful is an imperative, replacing the coarser matters of obscenity and crudeness. The basic tenets of most religions center around being kind to the people around you, which most often includes being thankful.
I would quickly like to clarify a small but important difference between gratitude (being grateful) and being gracious. Graciousness implies courtesy and grace, while being grateful connotes an actual feeling of appreciation and thankfulness. I focus here on being grateful.
Success and happiness are very often related and usually in a causal relationship; success leads to happiness and happiness leads to success. In fact, in a study by Lyubomirsky, King and Diener in 2005, it was found that “happiness is associated with and precedes numerous successful outcomes, as well as behaviors paralleling success. Furthermore, the evidence suggests that positive affect--the hallmark of well-being--may be the cause of many of the desirable characteristics, resources, and successes correlated with happiness.” Most people crave happiness; it is the motivating factor behind most actions. Our society actively works to eradicate unhappiness through a myriad of practices (some healthier than others): materialism, medical treatment, sports and hobbies, etc. Serious unhappiness, or clinical depression, is a documented disease. So, how does one attain this desired, often elusive emotion? What can someone do to be truly happy and thus successful, especially when so much is going wrong? There are many theories on the matter, but one particularly important finding is that about gratitude.
Meister Eckhardt, a noted theologian from the thirteenth century said, “If the only prayer you ever say in your entire life is ‘Thank you,’ it will be enough.” The practice of gratitude has been around for as long as moral imperatives have been documented. Only recently though, have people begun conducting studies on the effects of gratitude on personal happiness and general well being. Sincere and honest feelings of gratefulness, unbound by social courtesy or a sense of duty, are the path to increasing happiness through the practice of gratitude.
Taking this knowledge of the power of gratefulness, I undertook a study myself. I decided to teach the concept to my students and document the results in regard to their overall well-being and that pesky sense of entitlement. I called it, “Attitude of Gratitude.” I began by defining the concept and then having students keep a daily journal of all the things they were grateful for. Five minutes everyday was devoted to their Gratitude Journals. In addition to that, they had projects where they had to do something nice for someone else and document the reactions of the recipient as well as how they felt after completing the act. After several months, I found that interpersonal conflicts in the classroom decreased, academic achievement increased, and behavior problems all but disappeared. Now, I am scientific enough to know that there are LOTS of variables unaccounted for in that study and so I cannot prove that those effects are solely related to the study of gratitude. However, now I begin each day in the classroom by going around the room and sharing at least one thing that everyone is grateful for and my students have shared with me (unprompted) that they feel more positive because of it.
In a discussion with my latest group of students, I asked them why they thought we started class that way everyday and they were spot on. They told me it was because they were able to hear what other students said and connect with them even if they weren’t good friends, they were able to start class on a positive note even if the beginning of their day had been sour, and they got a chance to think about all of the good things in their lives. I nearly cried for joy. Not only did they get it on a cognitive level, but I saw the physical evidence in class. I saw so many students enter in a foul mood and hesitate when asked to share “a grateful” and leave class smiling. They told me that they hated it initially, that they didn’t like having to share what was going on in their lives but that toward the end of the year it was their favorite part of class.
I have shared this practice with others to use for themselves and with youth and have received nothing but positive feedback. So often when I am starting to feel negative, I will catch myself and start reciting everything I can think of to be grateful for. Sometimes, I have to start with the basics- air, water, food- and work my way up to the other things. I don’t always feel elated when I’m done, but I do always feel at least a little bit better than when I started.
Gratitude is a building block of happiness and thus success. If we aren’t grateful for what we have (little though it sometimes may be) we cannot achieve more. This is a concept I work daily to instill in my students and myself. I’ll tell you one thing, ask anyone in my life if I’m happier now than I was three years ago and they’ll likely say, “yes” before you even finish the question. I can’t attribute all of my success to sitting around and counting my blessings, but I can assure you that’s where it started. I can’t ensure that my students will always make the right choices or be mindful of the resources they consume, but I know that they have the skills to highlight the positive and opt for happiness if they choose to.
I hope that on this journey, you too will choose gratitude and love and share your joy with the world.
Clarifications on Gratitude vs. Graciousness and Ideas for Practice:
In his article, “Gratitude,” Berger discussed the idea of the “duty of gratitude”- the idea of owing gratefulness depending on the circumstances incurring your benefit. He argues that if someone does not intend to do something for your benefit or if they complete the action under threat, you owe them no gratitude. However, I believe that is a misuse of the term “gratitude.” As I distinguished earlier, I believe that falls under the category of graciousness. When something is pleasing to you or benefits you in some way, gratitude is due. It is not a duty to show it, but rather the best possible response. If expressed out of a sense of duty, it is not true appreciation. One must feel gratitude honestly in order for it to have positive effects upon the state of well-being. Berger continues to assert that the “proper object” of gratitude is benevolence, not beneficence; we owe no gratitude to someone who unwittingly benefits us (Berger). I agree that we may not “owe” that person gratitude, but a genuine feeling of gratitude for the receipt of the boon should automatically follow. To what or to whom the gratitude is directed is up for debate.
Walker recognizes the distinctions of gratitude in his article, “Gratefulness and Gratitude.” He discussed three types of gratitude: obligatory social gratitude (which I distinguish as graciousness), gratitude to a person who does the “duty” of assisting in times of danger, and finally to a person who goes above and beyond the call of what is necessary in the given situation (Walker). These three types of gratitude are instilled in us for the purposes of social justice, according to Walker. He notes though, that this all categorizes gratitude in a “hopelessly superficial way.” Sincerity is the key in effective and affective gratitude.
Keeping a gratitude journal is a good first step in growing a sense of gratitude. The gratitude is not directed at any one person in particular, but a general feeling of gratefulness for the multitude of wonderful gifts present in each of our lives is expressed to the universe. It encourages the search for gratitude as well. When one stops to think about what there is to be grateful for, really the list can be endless. The keeping of the journal, which is an open-ended space for listing items for which to be grateful promotes the idea that is not an emotion owed, but rather an ongoing and pervasive emotion that can and should be expressed often and for much. It broadens the scope of what there is to be grateful for. This is the type of gratitude that must be practiced to increase feelings of happiness and thus success.