Moments of Gratitude by Jen Hamilton Licensed Educational Psychologist
For students and faculty alike, summer is a natural time for renewal, a time to recharge and reflect upon areas of growth over the past year and to think about goals for the coming year.
There are many changes one can make, both big and small, to enhance happiness, relationships and psychological and physical health. But when you consider the effort-to-outcome ratio, there is nothing that packs a greater punch than incorporating gratitude into your life.
Research over the past several years has shown that cultivating a stance of gratitude is one of the simplest ways to improve resilience, interpersonal relationships and life satisfaction. We tend to have a natural inclination, at the end of the day, to reflect on what we wish had gone better and what we wished we could have achieved. While thinking along these lines can certainly motivate us to work harder, it can also sap us of confidence and energy, leaving us less likely to actually reach our goals.
In my exploration of gratitude this summer, I stumbled upon the work of Shawn Achor, a pioneer in the field of Positive Psychology and author of The Happiness Advantage: The Seven Principles of Positive Psychology That Fuel Success and Performance at Work. Achor beautifully addresses the topic of gratitude (and much more) in his TED Talk.
The essence of Achor's research is that in our society, we often believe that success is what brings us happiness. In his talk, he asserts that "ninety percent of your long-term happiness is predicted not by your external world, but by the way your brain processes the world" and that "75% of job successes are predicted by your optimism levels, your social support, and your ability to see stress as a challenge instead of as a threat" (Estrada, Isen & Young 1997.) This compelling research shows that "if we can raise someone's level of positivity in the present, then the brain performs better than when negative or stressed. Intelligence rises, your creativity rises, your energy level rises. Your brain, when positive, is 31% more productive than your brain when negative, neutral, or stressed (Lyubomirsky, 2005)."
How, then, can we unlearn our years of conditioning that tell us that we will be happy when we get the grades we want, get into the school we want, get the house or the car or the job we want? How can we train our brains to change the way we think about the world? Of the seven steps that Achor writes about in his book, a great place to start is to develop an outlook of gratitude.
If, at the end of each day, we deliberately think of three new things in the past 24 hours that we are grateful for, we begin to retrain our brains to scan the world for the positive instead of the negative (Emmons & McCullough, 2003). Taking two minutes a day to do this can meaningfully change your perspective in just a few weeks.
Perhaps in the coming weeks, as we all get into our new schedules and patterns, we can all try to incorporate this idea into our lives. As your kids hop into your car after school, instead of asking "How was your day?" (which usually gets only a one-word answer or maybe a grunt) try asking your kids to name three new things that they are grateful for. Make it a new habit to finish your day by jotting your moments of gratitude in a journal before bed. Talk about it over dinner. See how you and your family feel a few weeks from now. From my end, I will be incorporating a few moments of gratitude into middle school Personal Development classes each week so that students will have some exposure to the idea at school. Perhaps they will bring the idea home to you! If we can make this one small change to improve well-being, I say let's give it a try!
If you would like to discuss more ideas to bring a more positive outlook to your family's life, please feel free to contact me at JHamilton0f@nobles.edu, or another member of the counseling team: Mark Spence at MSpence0f@nobles.edu, or Mary Batty at MBatty0f@nobles.edu. As always, we welcome your thoughts and ideas.