Since my children were young, we’ve practiced the same Thanksgiving tradition. During the first week of November, we sit down together and make our “Thankful Turkeys.” We trace our hands (my youngest daughters are now almost as big as mine!) on recycled brown paper grocery bags, cut our “feathers” from bright construction paper, and write what we are thankful for on our feathers.
Some years, this activity is harder than other years. Some years, you might not feel very grateful for anything at all. One year, I wrote just a single word: “sleep.” Another year, I wrote, “cheap drywall patches from Home Depot.”
Being thankful and expressing gratitude regularly helps to lower both stress and blood pressure, enhance mental clarity, and lead to better health. “Studies show that people can deliberately cultivate gratitude by literally counting their blessings and writing letters of thanks, for example. This proactive acknowledgement can increase well-being, health and happiness. Being grateful — and especially the expression of it — is also associated with increased energy, optimism and empathy,” according to Psychology Today.
In fact, gratitude is not a state of being; it’s a habit that anyone can form with practice and consistency. And it’s a habit that we can and should not only teach to our children, but also to ourselves, as educators, as well. In my house, we practice gratitude in simple, practical, mindful ways.
- We say, “Thank you,” to everyone who serves us, from cashiers to restaurant servers to the brother or sister who made dinner or set the table that night.
- We write thank-you notes. In this age of ephemeral social media, a handwritten card may seem like an anachronism, but writing down our gratitude to those who have helped us is a key part of fostering the gratitude habit.
- We keep gratitude journals. Often the things I am grateful for occur through simple luck. I’ve learned through journaling to see rainbows and roses, to spot bright copper pennies on the sidewalk.
- When we are upset with someone, we take a minute to reflect on a time when we felt grateful to that person. Putting people in context reminds us that none of us are all good or all bad, that we all make mistakes, and we deserve to get and to give second chances.
This last point has been especially important to me. In one of my favorite plays about the absurdity of modern life, the playwright Christopher Durang’s title references a quote from Thomas Gray’s poem, “laughing wild amidst severest woe,” that often came to me in my darkest moments. When I felt like there were no answers, I would focus on a happy or silly memory and laugh. Laughter can be powerful medicine.
Focusing on the Present
I’ve discovered that my most powerful experience of gratitude is much quieter. It’s being grateful for the “present tense.” We all tend to live for the future, planning the next big thing, which can get exhausting and leave little time for being thankful for today’s experiences. I’ve learned to enjoy moments, to live within them, to breathe in and out and feel my lungs expand. I learned joy in a smile, a laugh, or a silly pun. At times, life feels absurd, but the present-tense moments bring everything into focus. Becoming grateful for the present tense enables me to see all of the things in my life that are going right. And over time, we can even be grateful for our struggles.
Gratitude for what we have been given — a loving family, a positive classroom, good friends, a sunny day — helps give us clarity, energy, and even better health. Start practicing gratitude today.
Liza Long is a writer, educator, mental health advocate, and mother of four children, one of whom has bipolar disorder. She is the author of the essay “I Am Adam Lanza’s Mother” and her book, “The Price of Silence: A Mom’s Perspective on Mental Illness,” won a 2015 “Books for a Better Life” Award. Liza advocates for mental health care on national level and regularly contributes to “Huffington Post” and “Psychology Today.”
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