As Americans recover from their Thanksgiving holiday of family and feasting, I am thinking about the power of giving thanks – from a psychological and educational perspective. Is being thankful a healthy choice, and if so, how can we infuse our schools and our lives with gratitude?

I am reminded of a trip to a vacation resort. When my electric keys no longer functioned, I waited at the front desk, behind others arriving for a week of pampering and enjoyment. My turn came, and a smiling attendant offered re-programmed keys, and a “thank you for your patience”. I answered without thinking, “It’s easy to be patient in paradise”. The desk clerk’s smile broadened as he said; “You just made my day”.

Judging by my comment’s reception, expressing gratitude may have gone out of style. This, at the same time that research on the growing field of positive psychology identifies gratitude as a characteristic that can promote resilience, increase our self-esteem, build our relationships, improve our sleep and our mood, reduce our stress, boost our immune system and even lower our blood pressure. Gratitude is clearly good for our health!

Gratitude is generally understood as the combination of both feelings and expression of appreciation, a sense of wonder and thankfulness for life. Yet although gratitude is good for us, modern cultural attitudes and practices may thwart both graciousness and gratitude. Are we too entitled, feeling we deserve good treatment, why should we have to be nice to those who provide it? Are we immune to the great comforts that make our lives safe, because we take them for granted? In our techno-driven world, are we so engrossed in the land of texts and buzzes that our only sign of gratitude has been abbreviated to the barely recognizable Tx?

If we want to raise a healthy generation that can both experience the wonder, thankfulness and appreciation for life that is gratitude, and that can enjoy all the health and psychological benefits thanks-giving can offer, then we may need to ramp up our efforts. We need to focus, and help the children and students in our lives focus on what we have. We should be asking our children and students to write about and tell us what they are thankful for, at least as often as we ask where is their homework. We need to directly teach the art and skill of the gracious “thank you”. We need to model thankfulness, replacing our “kvetching” about how much work a holiday means with our unbridled joy at the opportunity to share good times, and hopefully good health, with family and friends.

Some may shudder at this seemingly “feel good” approach to teaching and parenting, concerned that expressing thanks and gratitude will create children addicted to thanks. I for one am proud to admit that I am a gratitude junkie. I like when my employer demonstrates appreciation of my efforts, with intangibles like verbal congratulations, and even with tangibles like promotions! I like when my spouse tells me how much he appreciates my home decorating. Nothing makes my day as much as when my children visit, lift the cover off a pot in the kitchen and wax poetic about my cooking! I believe I would work, cook, and decorate no matter what, but all those bits of gratitude fuel my efforts, and make them seem even more worthwhile.

I am just as hooked on giving thanks. I thank my mailman, the dry cleaners, the faculty that works so diligently with me, the students who enrich my learning, the friends and family who offer their well wishes in good times, and support in bad times. Gratitude, social scientists tell us, is catching. Upstream generativity have resulted in so many paying it forward that our world can feel warmer, nicer, kinder. This contagion effects of thanks-giving may occur not because of what giving does for others, but because of how it makes us feel. We truly get when we give.

Preparing for a season of gifts and celebration, we have the wonderful opportunity to teach ourselves and our children what A. A. Milne’s Piglet knew; even a very small heart can hold a very large amount of gratitude. And in holding that gratitude, in sharing that gratitude, perhaps the very small hearts in our care will grow larger, healthier, and stronger.

With heartfelt thanks and wishes for a happy healthy season of thanks-giving.

Rona Milch Novick, PhD
Dean
Azrieli Graduate School of Jewish Education and
Administration
Yeshiva University
BH 313, 500 W 185 Street
New York, NY 10033
212-960-5400 x 6363
Rona.novick@yu.edu

 

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