Gratitude … goes beyond the “mine” and “thine” and claims the truth that all of life is a pure gift. In the past, I always thought of gratitude as a spontaneous response to the awareness of gifts received, but now I realize that gratitude can also be lived as a discipline. The discipline of gratitude is the explicit effort to acknowledge that all I am and have is given to me as a gift of love, a gift to be celebrated with joy.
– Henri J. M. Nouwen
Several years ago I had the opportunity to attend an education conference in San Francisco, CA. While I was there, I learned many exciting findings from the “science of happiness.” That weekend revolutionized my perspectives related to teaching and parenting. Since then I have been on a quest to create a happier classroom and to help other teachers do the same thing.
One lesson I learned at the conference pertains to the relationship between happiness and success. As recent research has shown, success does not always lead to happiness. Many of us know this from experience. For example, landing a highly coveted job and buying your dream home may not necessarily result in a blissful state. On the other hand, people who are happy tend to find success in school, at work, and in every domain in life.
Grateful people tend to be happier, whether they are adults or kids. When we express gratitude, our brains release dopamine, the chemical known as the “happiness neurotransmitter.” The more time we spend being grateful, the happier we are. So, if we can help kids become more grateful, they will be happier and more successful in the short run and down the road.
With this in mind, I start many of my sixth-grade history classes with brief “moments of gratitude.” I ask students to spend a few minutes drawing pictures of anything for which they are grateful. Wandering around the room, I encounter illustrations of dogs, cake, family gatherings, and other sources of delight. My hope is that gratitude will become habitual for my students, who will be happier as a result. In turn, greater happiness will make success more likely in the kids’ academic and personal lives.
Some other ways to teach gratitude in the classroom:
- When a student is celebrating a birthday, have the other kids make a list of reasons why they are grateful for the birthday girl or boy.
- If the skies are clear, talk about how grateful you are that the day is so beautiful. On a rainy day, proclaim that you are grateful for precipitation because our food chain depends on it.
- Begin class with the lights turned off. After awhile, turn them on. Discuss how grateful we should be to have electricity in our lives.
- We are fortunate that we have the ability to calm our minds when we feel anxious or stressed. You may want to use the “Mindfulness Bell” in your classroom to help students relax before a test.
- After returning from a holiday, go around the room and invite everyone share one positive experience that happened while they were away.
- How lucky are we to have antibiotics and other modern medicines? Work this into a conversation when kids return to school from absences due to illness.
- Give extra credit when students list three things they are grateful for on their test papers.
While many of us may be “wired to whine,” we can train our brains to become grateful. As in other areas of life, practice makes perfect.
Author: Mike Ferry
Mike is the author of Teaching Happiness and Innovation. A middle school history teacher at Collegiate School in Richmond, VA, Mike is raising four (mostly happy) children with his wife, Jenny. For more information about teaching happiness, visit his website or follow on twitter.