Practical Mindfulness: Gratitude

by | Nov 22, 2015

gratitudeWhen people talk about mindfulness, you often hear them talk about gratitude, too. After all, you can’t really practice gratitude without it.

For gratitude is more than just saying “thanks.” It’s recognizing what we value about an action or person or thing, and how we are enriched by the experience. It’s an act of honoring what has made our lives easier, better, fuller.

That kind of mindfulness is a key part of the Compliment Game, a popular SEL activity in the Yoga Calm curriculum. One by one, students take turns receiving specific compliments from each classmate and thanking them for their words. Obviously, each student practices gratitude when receiving compliments, but so do those giving the compliments.

The act of complementing activates mindfulness. To do so at all means we must recognize specific things that we like about a person. What we compliment is something we’re grateful for. The compliment itself becomes an expression of thanks.

And gratitude comes full circle.

The Science of Gratitude

One study used fMRI to show what happens in the brain when we experience gratitude. Two regions really light up: the anterior cingulate cortex and the medial prefrontal cortex. These areas are associated with things like emotional processing, interpersonal bonding, moral judgment and empathy – which ultimately suggested to the authors that, neurologically, gratitude might be a whole lot more dynamic and complex than we might think.

“A lot of people conflate gratitude with the simple emotion of receiving a nice thing. What we found was something a little more interesting,” says [lead author Glenn] Fox. “The pattern of [brain] activity we see shows that gratitude is a complex social emotion that is really built around how others seek to benefit us.”

In other words, gratitude isn’t merely about reward—and doesn’t just show up in the brain’s reward center. It involves morality, connecting with others, and taking their perspective.

So maybe it’s no surprise that other research shows such a wide range of ways in which gratitude – like other positive, social behaviors and attitudes – benefits us.

In only a few decades, gratitude research has demonstrated the numerous benefits of gratitude for mental health and wellness. As discussed…, gratitude appears to have protective benefits against mental illness (Wood et al., 2008; see also, Layous et al., 2014), as well as beneficial effects for social relationships (Lambert et al., 2010), psychological well-being (Froh et al., 2008), and physical health (Emmons and McCullough, 2003).

And of course the really beautiful thing is that such practices can be learned and nurtured so they may become second nature, habitual.

But What About in Schools?

elementary classroomThe school setting is an excellent one for teaching gratitude practices. The extensive, global literature review in this 2013 report from the Journal of Happiness Studies confirms that such programs can be very effective in helping improve students’ mental well-being.

Yet as Kristin Layous and Sonja Lyubomirsky astutely note in their 2014 paper “Benefits, Mechanisms, and New Directions for Teaching Gratitude to Children,” there’s at least one potential pitfall to what they describe as “forced gratitude.” Students, they suggest, may come to see it as just another academic task – something that must be done to avoid reprimand.

On the other hand, intrinsic motivation can still be fostered even within the confines of externally regulated behavior (e.g., obligatory expressions of gratitude) if the activity fosters the psychological needs of competence (i.e., feeling skilled at a task), connectedness (i.e., feeling connected to others), and autonomy (i.e., feeling in control of one’s choices; Ryan & Deci, 2001).

The gratitude curriculum might help children feel like gratitude aficionados, knowing when and how to express their gratitude and appreciation. In addition, once gratitude is expressed and the target of the gratitude responds in a favorable manner, the student may feel more connected to that person and may feel happier, thus reinforcing the initial expression of gratitude.

Thus, all of the gratitude practices within Yoga Calm happen not in isolation but in the context of other SEL activities, as well as the basic implementation of the physical yoga. Gratitude is combined with multiple facets of achieving mastery, connecting with others, and self-regulation. All of these things become reinforced simultaneously.

And at Home? More Ways to Foster More Gratitude This Thanksgiving – and Beyond

  • Make a Gratitude Tree or start a more conventional gratitude jar in which you and your children regularly drop short notes identifying things you’re grateful for. (But before doing the jar, be sure to see this great post on making that jar work its best for you.)
  • Notice and express thanks for the little stuff. It’s easy and straightforward enough to say thank you when someone does you a favor, say, but that’s mechanical, not mindful. For when we really look – and listen and feel – we can see all kinds of “inconsequential” things that enrich our lives. Maybe it’s the color of the sky one day. Maybe it’s a running brook you frequently walk near. Maybe it’s the man who stands on the same street corner every morning, waving good morning to every passerby. Point out such happenings to your kids and tell them why you are grateful for it. Encourage them to do the same.
  • At dinner or bedtime each day, have everyone choose and share the three of the best things about their day. This can be difficult when your child has a terrible, horrible, no good, very bad day – but also extremely powerful.

What are some of your favorite ways of nurturing gratitude in children? What’s been most effective? Share your experience in the comments!

Images by Kate Ware & USAG-Humphreys,
via Flickr

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