Shift Your Thinking and Brighten Your Life
By Tracy Wagers, Field Coach, Urban Residency
We’re tired. Our to-do lists are long and somehow, getting longer. If you live or work with kids, chances are someone near you is either currently sick, recovering from being sick, or just coughed loudly and wiped their nose on their sleeve. Although those of us in education may especially feel the pressure and demands of this time of year, in most industries the physical and emotional demands of “adulting” are stressing us out.
So what’s an educator to do? My suggestion? Give yourself the gift of intentionally practicing gratitude.
Why gratitude? Gratitude is one easy practice that can make your life better without the disappearance of any of the stressors you are currently experiencing. Gratitude practice helps us reframe our thinking and shifts how we view our circumstances, which for educators and non-educators alike, is accompanied by a host of benefits. These positives of gratitude can include reductions in symptoms of depression and anxiety, improved physical health, and healthier decision-making for how to cope with stress. Research also suggests that individuals who consistently practice gratitude may have an improved capacity for emotional regulation, as well as being more inclined to reach out to others for support. In other words, not a single negative side effect.
Developing the practice of gratitude is partially about honing our skill in noticing and naming, which will be familiar to those of us in education. Researcher Robert Emmons has written at length about gratitude; he identifies one key component of gratitude as the conscious recognition of the positives in our lives. Here are several simple ways you can build your gratitude “muscles” and see the good that’s already present:
- Practice through writing: We often have our students “stop and jot” their thinking as part of the learning process. If you have a daily journaling practice, start by writing one thing for which you are grateful. Alternatively, you can capture a daily gratitude on a single sheet of paper while your oatmeal cooks each morning or buy yourself a tiny notebook to serve as a gratitude journal. I feel fortunate to be nearly ten years into an email gratitude practice. A college friend and I exchange single sentence emails every weeknight evening naming a gratitude from our day.
- Speak your gratitude: Verbal expressions of gratitude can have as positive an impact on the person speaking the statement of gratitude as on the receiver. Who in your life might you want to thank today? Consider asking yourself this question every day and taking action on it for the next two or three weeks. The appreciation doesn’t have to be for a life-changing action or more than a sentence or two. Gratitude can be any size: I’m grateful for how you regularly text to see if we need anything from the grocery store. I’m grateful to have you as a colleague. I’m grateful you were kind to your brother tonight at dinner.
- Savor positive experiences: Another simple strategy for teasing out good from the tangle of stressors in our lives is to intentionally be present for pleasurable experiences, using as many of our senses as possible. I feel the warmth from my coffee cup on a cold morning. It’s early and still; the absence of my still-sleeping kids laughing or arguing triggers an appreciation for a few minutes of quiet before a busy day begins. Before dinner, inhaling the steam from the chicken stock cooking on my stove prompts me to feel grateful my family has plenty of healthy food to eat. This approach to gratitude brings us fully into the present moment to recognize a good we might otherwise gloss over.
- Seek the silver linings: This form of gratitude practice can be a bit more challenging as it relies on the skill of cognitive reframing, which involves actively taking a different perspective on a situation. While in the approaches above you might focus on something positive in your life, regardless of what other challenges are happening, with this form of gratitude, you specifically name a good which arose from a difficult experience. It’s important not to force it or be self-critical if you can’t or aren’t ready to identify a good from a painful experience, but developing our skill in noticing and naming unexpected beneficial outcomes is worth the effort over time.
If you’re drawn to learn more about gratitude, the Greater Good Science Center (https://greatergood.berkeley.edu/) has a range of wonderful research-based and application-focused articles. The Thank-You Project by Nancy Davis Kho shares other practical guidance for identifying and expressing the good in your life. As you move through December and into the new year, consider actively developing a gratitude practice through a form which aligns with your strengths and needs.
Gratitude doesn’t mean life will instantly get easier. We’ll still experience conflict, take ill children to the pediatrician repeatedly, go home tired without having a plan for dinner, and have to fight hard to make the world a better place for kids. We’ll do so in good company though, grateful for–and equally important–more aware of many blessings we would otherwise too easily forget.