Meister Eckhart once said, “If the only prayer you ever said in life was thank you, that would suffice.” Gratitude is a powerful thing and the simple act of giving thanks is one of the best ways to increase happiness and joy in children and adults when practiced regularly. Studies have shown that the simple act of being grateful has the enormous capacity to increase joy, reduce stress and depression, increase optimism, and improve resiliency. The feelings we get when we are grateful also do wonders for calming our nervous system and increasing levels of dopamine that stimulate our prefrontal cortex, that part of the brain where reasoning and logic take place. It’s not surprising that practicing gratitude has such a powerful impact, after all, to be grateful for at least one thing a day forces even the most pessimistic of people to take a moment to find the silver lining.
In MindUp, we introduce the concept of gratitude by passing a gratitude stone. Each student takes a moment to give thanks for something in their lives. While students sometimes start off by giving thanks for things like their toys, they quickly begin to look for other meaningful things to be grateful for such as a friend or family member, an act of kindness, or a special moment.
I also introduce a gratitude journal. In past years, students have written their gratitude of the day in their agendas or in special journals they decorated and personalized. The act of keeping a gratitude journal can profoundly change the way you see the world. In university, I went travelling for four months in Europe. I was given a journal and, for some reason, decided that I would only focus on the positive aspects of my trip. Despite bumps in the road, I religiously focused on the aspects of my day that were positive and the experiences I was grateful for. It didn’t mean I didn’t address the bumps along the way, but instead I looked for the humour and opportunity in those situations. The simple act of giving thanks and focusing on the positive shaped the way I saw the world for those four months. I looked at it through more optimistic eyes, I focused on the small aspects of life that made me happy, and I learned to be far more resilient in the face of challenges. Isn’t that what we want for our students?
Everyone handles teaching gratitude in different ways. One of the amazing teachers at my school, Ms. Kurylo, used Neil Pasricha’s “Book of Awesome” to teach her class about the power of gratitude and the importance of seeing the many awesomes in the world. I love Pasricha’s books because he focuses on the little things we tend to miss each day: comfortable silences, finding money in your pocket, a great teacher. Ms. Kurylo had her class keep their own “Book of Awesomes” and, at the start of the year, they created their own “Awesome” bulletin board.
When I saw Pasricha’s “Book of Holiday Awesome,” I decided to give awesomes a try. Reading the Christmas section of his book made me smile throughout. Yes, flipping through channels and finding your favorite Christmas special, awesome. Sitting in a room with the only lights being that of the Christmas tree, awesome. Listening to the beautiful silence that comes with a snowfall, definitely awesome. After reading a few awesomes, I had my students come up with their own. They thought of holiday or winter traditions or seasonal things that made them happy. Some took favorite holiday memories and turned them into awesomes. For example, one of my students remembered being woken by her grandfather at 2:00 a.m. to go and play in freshly fallen snow with her cousin. Because they were personal, their descriptions of their awesomes were richly sensorial and beautifully written. Just a few of my favorites were:
Watching a movie with your family on Christmas Eve while picking away at the family gingerbread house. Awesome
Feeling the fresh snow beneath my snowboard on that very first trip down the slopes. Awesome
The taste of snowflakes on your tongue. Awesome
Deciding which Christmas decoration will be the first on the tree. Awesome
It seems that at this time of the year, many of us take time to give thanks. We might give thanks for the generous gifts we receive, for the meal we share with family or friends, or simply for the many blessings we have received throughout the year. I have many holiday awesomes, but one of my favorites is hanging a special picture on my Christmas tree every year, the same picture at the top of this post. It is of my siblings and I sitting on my great uncle’s lap the year he decided, long after retiring from the post office, to be a mall Santa. He loved Christmas and being with family more than anyone else I knew. He also embodied what it really meant to be grateful. He lived each day of his life feeling blessed and, even though he has passed, hanging this picture on my tree reminds me of the person he was and the life he lived. He was awesome in every sense of the word.
This is the season to be grateful but my wish for you is that you will carry the spirit of gratitude with you long after the snow has melted and the Christmas tree has been packed away. My hope is that each day you will take the time to reflect and be grateful for some aspect of your life, however big or small. The more you look the more you will realize just how awesome this world we live in really is.