The summer of Gratitude – some reflections

Please note that a version of this article appeared in the Toronto Star on Sunday, August 22nd, 2022.

Hello to all,

I have taken the summer to unplug and unwind after a challenging year; I hope you have gotten some time to yourselves as well. As the world cautiously dances around this pandemic and attempts to open back up, many will have mixed emotions. For us educators, I can confidently say that our work and motivation fair better when we are physically with our students. Kids are the best – they have tons of energy, zest, complexity and smarts – that are much harder to tap into from behind a screen. It goes both ways – we know all too well how our students have struggled this past year.

With all the unrest, sadness and uncertainty in the world, it is very easy to default to doom and gloom – at least it has been for me and for many of my students. I am not one you would say is naturally grateful for the small things in my life. I tend to look beyond the horizon and wonder what else I can achieve, and how the world might be different if not for this pandemic. But these thought processes weren’t serving me over these past 1.5 years and I wanted to explore some other possibilities. One of my strategies for change was to tap into a daily gratitude practice over the summer. I bought a notebook and every morning I write 3 things I am grateful for and I end the day reflecting on what went well and what I could have changed. It looks like this, if you want to give it a go;

I am grateful for …

What would make today great …

Daily affirmations. I am …

3 amazing things that happened today…

How could I have made today even better…

This summer experiment has been life changing for me and altered my perspective in profound ways – I just feel happier thinking about all the blessings in my life on a daily basis. My kids, my partner, good friends and neighbours, meaningful work, etc. Perhaps it sounds corny, but just try it, because this thought process sounds a lot different than, ‘are these closures ever going to end?’ Ugh, Delta’. It’s amazing to see these thought processes side by side and realize how I could feel downright miserable spewing the latter all day long.

The transformative nature of a daily gratitude practice checks out with psychology. An article in the Journal of Social and Clinical Psychology concluded that gratitude may have the highest connection to happiness and mental health of any other personality trait studied. They concluded that a full “18.5% of individual differences in people’s happiness could be predicted by the amount of gratitude they feel.” 18.5% – that is much more happiness in a person’s life!

Putting a pen to paper and committing these thoughts into a tangible artifact is key – simply thinking about the things in your life you are grateful for is a great start, but the transformation happens when you can see it, look back on it and think about your next steps moving forward. You have to journal and it’s worth it as gratitude solves a lot of issues that many of us struggle with including;

  • Habituation – or this idea of simply getting used to all the things in our lives, like marriages, houses and jobs, to the point where they don’t thrill us in the ways they used to. It’s so important to stop and remember all of the ways our people and experiences serve and nurture us, because it is all too easy to forget in the chaos of everyday life. Gratitude can help with this.
  • Comparison (the ‘thief of joy’) – In a graduation address to USC grads in 2018, Oprah Winfrey stated that, “your life journey is about learning to become more of who you are and fulfilling the highest, truest expression of yourself as a human being. That’s why you’re here.” True and wise words, but so hard to live by if one is constantly looking to the person beside them and their different (not better) accomplishments. The logic really makes no sense, but we are wired as humans to compare and have to actively work to continue on our own life path and not veer out of our lane as we look to others. Gratitude practices are how we can do this.
  • Stressful life events – Stress is inevitable, as is conflict with others at home and at work. Instead of ‘why is this happening to me?’ though, we can ask “I don’t know why, but I am glad this is here so I can learn something about myself.” This works well with conflict at work especially well.

I wrote this post now because I think it may be useful for our students and children in schools this year. If you are a teacher or administrator you might consider an initiative in your school that asks your community to commit to this practice and share. This year won’t be an easy one, and we will need to utilize wellbeing strategies to get through.

L.

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