Your optimism is infectious. You’re like the first domino in the domino effect. You impact my life every class with the theories we learn, and I subsequently pass on this knowledge to my family and friends. Thank you for always giving our class 100%.
A note like this is every teacher’s dream—and one of us (Jeffrey Froh) was fortunate enough to receive it from a student recently. The note didn’t only warm Jeff’s heart; it illustrated to him how establishing positive relationships and feelings of connection in schools can help transform youth.
But with budget cuts intensifying the demands on teachers and other school personnel, how can schools strengthen students’ connections to their teachers, schools, and communities?
We propose one answer that’s not only free but can be infused into existing curricula across subjects and grade levels: gratitude.
The two of us have been among the first researchers to study gratitude among youth. Since we started our research program in 2006, we’ve worked with thousands of children and adolescents across the United States (and we’re now expanding this work to Australia, Britain, Japan, and Singapore). Though the field is still new, we’re already learning how gratitude does more than just make kids feel good; it also improves their mood, mental health, and life satisfaction, and it can jumpstart more purposeful engagement in life at a critical moment in their development, when their identity is taking shape.
For instance, a recent study of ours found that teens who had high levels of gratitude when entering high school had less negative emotions and depression and more positive emotions, life satisfaction, and happiness four years later when they were finishing high school. They also had more hope and a stronger sense of meaning in life. Another study of ours, which followed students over six months, shows that feeling grateful motivates adolescents to help others and use their strengths to contribute to society.
That’s wonderful for the grateful students. But what about the others? Can students learn to cultivate gratitude—and reap the benefits?
In our research, we’ve tested concrete ways that educators can actually make youth more grateful—with very positive results. This research points to specific practices and principles that educators can weave into their classrooms.
Perhaps the most commonly used technique for boosting gratitude—among adults and youth alike—is a gratitude journal.
In one early study, we asked middle school students simply to list five things for which there were grateful daily for two weeks, and we compared these students to others who were writing about hassles in their life or basic daily life events. Keeping a gratitude journal was related to more optimism and life satisfaction and to fewer physical complaints and negative emotions. Most significantly, compared to the other students, gratitude journalers reported more satisfaction with their school experience immediately after the two-week period, a result that held up even three weeks later.
This exercise is easy to implement. Regardless of the subject, educators can have students jot down what they are grateful for before class begins. To make the exercise more potent students can describe why they are grateful for the things they list. Entries could even be posted on a gratitude wall as an artful reminder. We have solid scientific evidence that these practices boost students’ moods, broaden their thinking, and energize greater learning.
Another exercise we’ve tested is the gratitude visit, in which students write a letter to someone who had helped them but whom they’d never properly thanked; the students read their letter to them in person, then later discuss their experience with others who also completed a gratitude visit.
When we conducted a study of the gratitude visit, we found that students who began the study low in positive emotions reported more gratitude and positive emotions immediately after the study, and greater positive emotions two months later, compared with students who didn’t do a gratitude visit.
Building on this research, and research by colleagues, we have identified several key principles that educators can use to promote gratitude in their students—principles that we’ve incorporated into our own gratitude curriculum. This curriculum is intended to subtly instill grateful thinking in youth without requiring an explicit focus on gratitude. It emphasizes three key principles that can support a gratitude journal, a gratitude visit, or simply the practice of gratefulness in everyday life. They are:
1. Notice intentions. Try to encourage students to appreciate the thought behind gifts they receive—to consider how someone noticed their need and acted on it. Research suggests this goes a long way toward cultivating “an attitude of gratitude” among children and adults alike. For students in particular, knowing that others believe in them and their potential motivates self-improvement. To get students to reflect on the intentions behind the gifts they receive, teachers can prompt them with a question such as, “Can you think of a time when a friend (or parent, teacher, or coach) noticed something you needed (e.g., lunch), or remembered something you care about (e.g., collecting feathers) and then provided you with those things?” As students give examples, teachers could have them elaborate: “How did you know they helped you on purpose? How did you feel after they helped you?”
2. Appreciate costs. We also find it important to emphasize that when someone is helpful, that person usually sacrifices time or effort to provide the help. For example, teachers could ask, “What are some things your friend gave up to help you with that project?” Playground aids could say, “Wow, for your friend to come play tag with you, he had to stop playing soccer, which I know is his favorite game.” A librarian could point out “how nice it was for that student to let you use the computer instead.”
3. Recognize the value of benefits. Teachers can also foster gratitude by reminding students that when others help us, they are providing us with “gifts.” This is one reason why, in our gratitude curriculum, we prompt students to focus on the personal value of the kind acts of others. One way teachers can bring this up is to have students complete the sentence stem “My day (or life) is better because…” and give examples such as, “… my teacher helped me when I didn’t understand something” or, “… my coach showed me how to be a better basketball player.”
Studies of our gratitude curriculum have found that children’s ability to think gratefully can be strengthened, and with this change comes improvements in their moods. A weekly version of the curriculum produced these effects up to five months later. A daily version had immediate effects (two days later) and led children to write 80 percent more thank you cards to their PTA; even their teachers found them happier. That it can be infused into any program focused on kind, helpful—or “pro-social”—behavior makes it practical, too.
What’s more, we believe the benefits of gratitude can spread beyond students to teachers and staff, not only improving their work but helping to prevent burnout. This, in turn, can influence parents, providing common ground for investing in youth.
Perhaps most of all, gratitude is a social emotion—it brings people together. After reading his student’s thank you note, for instance, Jeff became inspired. Knowing the student was stressed about graduate school applications, he treated her to some coffee and guidance—first-hand evidence that expressing gratitude can strengthen ties between teachers and students.
By promoting gratitude in schools, we’ll foster these kinds of connections on a much wider scale, helping both students and schools to thrive.