by Assistant Head of School and Middle School Principal Dr. Meredith deChabert
If you turn on the news today, whether local, national, or global, it might take awhile for you to hear and see something positive. And by the time you do, you might not be in the best frame of mind to appreciate it, even if it is the cutest animal story ever. In many ways, our lives today are overwhelmed by stimuli that challenge and frustrate our desire to be happy. What is one to do in such an ethos? How do we protect our emotional well-being and teach our children to do the same, fostering an environment that is positive and healthy for young people in which to grow up?
In the summer of 2017, I had the good fortune to attend a "Mindfulness Tools" workshop at the Omega Center in Rhinebeck, NY. Our school was in the early stages of thinking about balance and wellness, and we had had some exposure to mindfulness teachings and practice. I figured I would check it out, since the purpose of the five-day retreat was to learn the basics of mindfulness-based stress reduction. Who wouldn't want to reduce stress?! I had no idea how powerful that experience would be, and in particular, how I would practice one of the tools every day to counter the negativity that seems so ubiquitous.
I'll let you in on the secret: pause for a moment for gratitude. I really was skeptical at first, until I did my very first gratitude meditation. Over the course of the mindfulness practice, which asks us to focus specifically on things for which we are grateful—the good things in our lives—mood improves and becomes more positive, we feel more hopeful, and we feel more resilient.
There is a growing body of research that explores the health benefits of practicing gratitude, including improved heart health, lower levels of stress/stress hormones and depression, resilience to trauma, fewer symptoms of physical illness, stronger immune systems, feeling less lonely and isolated, and improved quality of sleep and sleep patterns. For employees, feeling valued leads to higher job satisfaction and motivation to do their best. Advances continue in the neuroscience of gratitude and how organizations can benefit from new frameworks. The field of positive psychology includes attention to the power of practicing gratitude, helping people to shift from a negative orientation to a positive one and heightening our prefrontal cortex's sensitivity to experiences of gratitude. People who "feel and express gratitude tend to be pro-social—kind, helpful, and giving."*
Like all things that are worth pursuing, gratitude has to be cultivated and practiced. Recommendations include keeping a gratitude journal, making a list of people and/or things for which you are grateful, writing and delivering thank you notes, and reflecting on things in your day that went well. I like this article, "A Serving of Gratitude This Thanksgiving Season," which outlines a few simple things we can do as we head into the days of giving thanks. Another recommendation is to take the little "thank you's" off of auto-pilot: pick one interaction in your day, and when your instinct to say "thanks" arises, name what you are feeling grateful for, then say thanks when you are truly present in the moment.*
I also love the idea that practicing gratitude can help us to feel connected to other humans, to see the bigger picture of humanity and our and others' roles in it. If the thing we are grateful for is outside of us, then the goodness goes beyond us. It's out there, in the world, especially in times like these, and that can go a long way to restoring our faith in each other. Gratitude is something powerful that we can teach our children, and it is something we can happily practice with them.
* Domet, Stephanie. "The Power of Thanks." Mindful, December 2018. 18-19.