How Having an Attitude of Gratitude is Good for Your Health!

Hello Teacher Brains!

Did you know that gratitude benefits your physical and mental health as well as our emotions, and how it actually rewires your brain – like on a molecular level – as well as increases your energetic frequency, and even regulates your body’s internal systems?!

Did you know that simply incorporating a few minutes of daily gratitude practice into our own life, and your teaching, you can foster an “attitude of gratitude” and enjoy these incredible health benefits?

Simply put, gratitude is “a deep level of appreciation for something of someone who is important, valuable or meaningful to you.” (Jim Kwik)

Let me begin by switching your brain into high gear, by asking What are YOU grateful for? 

As you thought about what you’re grateful for, if you felt the gratitude while you did so, you just treated your brain to all kinds of exciting and beneficial effects.  

In episode 1, I mentioned dopamine, one of the feel-good chemicals released in the brain during celebration – and if you think about it, in a way, gratitude is a kind of celebration. It’s a celebration of thanks for a person, thing or event that means something to you. Dopamine is fired when you feel grateful. It’s the chemical responsible for driving our lives. In fact, when dopamine was blocked in the brains of rats, they were shown to completely lose all drive to perform, seek food and water, and even live. Crazy right?! Dopamine is like a natural high for your brain. Your brain loves that feeling, and craves more of it, so you therefore feel motivated to get another hit by practicing gratitude again and again – AND feel more inclined to do good for others, and give thanks to those around you. 

Grateful people are more likely to perform acts of kindness, which just serves to amplify the benefits.  

Gratitude also helps regulate your bodily functions. Have you ever heard of your hypothalamus? No? Neither had I before this, but it’s a very important part of your brain that regulates many of your bodily functions including your metabolism, sleep, appetite, temperature, and your growth. Forbes magazine in 2012 shared a study conducted at Harvard that revealed that when we feel grateful, our hypothalamus is activated, improving the function of all those things I just mentioned, and more. 

There was another study conducted at UCLA that found that the molecular structure of your brain is impacted by the regular expression of gratitude! It keeps our grey matter functioning and keeps us happier and healthier! 

What do I mean by healthier? Well, it turns out that grateful people report fewer aches and pains, are more likely to take care of their health, exercise more often, and get more regular checkups at their doctors, all of which can contribute to longevity.  Writing in a gratitude journal for just a few minutes a day has even been shown to reduce blood pressure by 10%.   That’s like free healthcare!

And it’s not just your physical health that benefits from gratitude, but get this, there are studies confirming that gratitude ups happiness and reduces depression.  That’s because you cannot physically experience feelings of anxiety, stress, or depression simultaneously with gratitude. The chemicals that fire when you feel depressed or anxious cannot fire in the brain at the same time as dopamine. Dopamine is like the antidote to anger, fear, and anxiety.

So, it’s not happy people who are grateful, but grateful people who are happy!

And they sleep better too. Increased quality of sleep, decreased time it takes to fall asleep, and longer duration of sleep, have all been proven in multiple studies to be the benefits of practicing gratitude. Again, simply through 15 minutes of daily writing in a gratitude journal. 

And if that weren’t enough, gratitude has been found to reduce stress, and amazingly, plays a major role in overcoming trauma. Individuals who are grateful recover faster from trauma than those who aren’t. In 2006, there was a study published that concluded that Vietnam war veterans with higher levels of gratitude, experienced lower rates of Post Traumatic Stress Disorder, or PTSD.

One of the biggest things we wish for our “Little Brains” (whether it be the ones in your home, or the ones in your classroom, or both) is self-esteem. Don’t we want our kids to be self assured? To be confident in themselves, and their abilities?  I know you do!

One of the major contributors to low self-esteem and self-doubt, is comparison. Especially with the prevalence of social media and cyber bullying, we want to help those Little Brains understand that comparison is the thief of joy.

Gratitude reduces social comparisons.  Grateful people understand that celebrating others’ accomplishments does not take away from their own. They don’t feel jealous or resentful toward people who have more than they do – or appear to have more than they do, because, let’s be honest, what people post on social media can be a bit…ummm misleading, or completely false.  But, grateful people are able to appreciate what they have, and their accomplishments, along with those of others.  As Taylor Swift says… or sings, We all got crowns! 

And here’s even more. I know many of us (myself included) are looking for ways to foster empathy in our classrooms.  Maybe you create role plays, do read-alouds, facilitate community circles, show videos all in the hopes of increasing empathy. Well, it turns out that people who practice gratitude behave in a more prosocial manner – even when others are acting unkind.  A 2012 study by the University of Kentucky revealed that grateful people experienced more sensitivity and empathy toward other people, and were less inclined to retaliate against others, even when facing negative feedback.

Gratitude cultivates resilience, or grit. And isn’t that what we all want for our students? I know you do! For them to persevere, to not give up when things get a bit, (or a lot) hard, or people disagree or even challenge them?  Practicing gratitude is key in fostering resilience.

There is a quote from Zig Ziglar, that says, “Gratitude is the healthiest of all human emotions. The more you express gratitude for what you have, the more likelihood you will have even more to express gratitude for.” That quote is mirrored by Rohonda Byrne in her book, The Magic. “Whoever has gratitude will be given more, and he or she will have an abundance. Whoever does not have gratitude, even when he or she has will be taken from him or her.”

This is not just a nice notion.  It’s brain science.  Recently, scientists have discovered something called the Reticular Activating System. It’s sort of your brain’s bodyguard. It’s a part of your brain, located at the base, about the size of your pinky finger, that filters the data around you. We are inundated with up to 2 million bits of data at any time. Our brains can only process so much at once. So, it hires the bouncer – RAS – to only let in things that it believes are important. 

As adults, we have the advantage of a fully developed Pre-Frontal  Cortex, which allows us to consciously think about our choices and foresee and evaluate their possible outcomes, but the Little Brains in front of us do not yet have this capacity. They are essentially walking subconsciouses absorbing everything they see and hear as truths. Their RAS is not yet skilled and practiced at filtering. And, if you’ve been paying attention to my previous episodes and posts, you are well aware of how your brain decides what is important, and worth holding onto. That’s right, you tell it by what you focus on most.

I’ve said it before, and I’ll say it again, your brain is like the dream student you always wish you had. It listens to everything you tell it.  And what you tell it over and over, it automates as a belief, which drives your actions to get your results.  So, Zig Ziglar knew what he was talking about. And so do others.  The more you focus on gratitude, the more you will find evidence of things to be grateful for.  The stronger your belief that there are so many things to be grateful for, the more things will come into your life to be grateful for.  So, set your RAS to look for the positives – the things to feel gratitude about.

The littlest things count. Training your brain to be grateful for the little things in life helps you experience joy on a regular basis.

So, where can we start? Here are a few things you can easily fit into your life, and classroom practice to align your brain with an attitude of gratitude.

  1. Keep a daily gratitude journal.  3 things in the morning, and 3 in the evening.  It takes about 2-5 minutes, but can make a drastic improvement in your mindset, and your life. With your students, you could do this at entry into the classroom, and at exit at the end of the day – perhaps your students write 3 things they’re grateful for when they enter the classroom, and as a close to the day. Again, writing is ideal, but for the non-writers, they could draw, or simply share verbally with a partner or group. You can also work up to 3, start with 1 or 2.  Sharing these as a class is also a great way to spread gratitude, and remind others what they can be grateful for.
  1. Do a gratitude dump or brainstorm. In the middle of the page, write Thank you for… and then just record things all around, whatever pops into your head. If you don’t know where to start, look around you, and write down all the things that money can’t buy.  Start with fresh air to breathe, water in the taps, food for lunch.  If you’re still stuck, be grateful for your subconscious – even if some of what it has automated doesn’t serve you, it is working hard to keep you safe, all day long. When you notice a limiting thought pop into your head, practice saying “Thank you for sharing that, I appreciate you keeping me safe.  I am going to let go of that thought.” and move on.  Be grateful for gratitude – because it does wonderful things for your brain and your body, as we’ve learned. 
  1. Keep a gratitude jar. Instead of, or along with a gratitude journal, write down gratitudes on papers & put them in the jar.  An added bonus is that when you’re feeling low, you just reach into the bowl or jar, and read/feel what you have to be grateful for. Bringing yourself back to a state of gratitude, even in the moments when things seem bleak and dark, will fire dopamine, and pull you out of a potential negative spiral.
  1. Write a note to someone to tell them why you appreciate them.  Or call them, or better yet, tell them face to face. I used to have a class who… needed a bit of community building… and so I made an “Appreciation wall” on one of my bulletin boards. I had all their names up on cards. After recess, we would take a few minutes to share a reason why we appreciated someone, and I would let them put a sticker on a person’s card who they appreciated that day. Was it a perfect system? No.  But, it did 2 things that I did like, 1. It helped the kids be aware of, and think about, reasons to be grateful for the people around them, and 2. It inspired people to do more acts of kindness, because they knew it was appreciated. 

    Jim Kwik says, “Feeling gratitude and not expressing it, is like wrapping a present and not giving it.”

    *** I know that some classes subscribe to bucket-filling practices, and I’ve been thinking about that, and like the appreciation wall, there are things I do like about it, and I see the attempts, I realized the down side is that with that language of “so-and-so tipped my bucket when they did this because they made me feel, ____” is that it puts the person in the victim mindset. Someone else’s actions made me feel something.  We know a) that’s not true, only your own thoughts can create your feelings, so that could be confusing for them, because it’s contradictory. And b) In so doing, it gives away your power to another person because you’re saying that they can make you feel a certain way – which again, we know is not true.  It’s just something I’ve been thinking about, and wanted to pass on. As always, I am not trying to tell you what to do by any means, I’m just sharing my opinion and learning.***
  1. Gratitude Circle. Another easy and effective practice could be during community circle, everyone could share something they’re grateful for.  That could be a prompt for the day.
  1. Mirror Work. Look in the mirror and say out loud something you’re grateful for about yourself.  Put a mirror up in your classroom – maybe as students enter the room, they look in the mirror, and say something to themselves that they are grateful for about themselves. This has the added bonus of increasing self worth and self esteem.
  1. Gratitude Reminders. Write something you are grateful for and set it as your lock screen in your phone. There was a screen lock app tested in 2017 that showed that people unlock their phones, on average, 110 times a day. That’s 110 reminders of what you have to be grateful for.  You could also do it with a photo, or collection of photos – and many of us already have our spouses and/or kids on there, but this is a great hack to up your vibration of gratitude, which we now know is the highest frequency emotion, the healthiest of all human emotions.  In your classroom, that might look like posters or the screen saver – when your Little Brains enter your classroom, they see an image or images, or words around the room right away. And better yet, use the words they’ve written themselves as your shared gratitudes.

The greatest part is that practicing gratitude is FREE! And the side effects are only positive! 

So, I ask again, what are you grateful for?  And how will you incorporate a practice of gratitude into your life, and/or your classroom?

Nothing is positive, and nothing is negative. Situations are completely neutral. It is your thinking that makes them positive or negative. Your thoughts create your feelings, which drive your actions, to get your results.  Choose what you want to feel grateful for.  Choose to think thoughts that create that feeling. When you feel gratitude, you will act more kindly, with more empathy and compassion, better manners, which can result in new friendships, more opportunities, and a deeper level of connection with others.  Not to mention all the mental and physical health benefits we’ve learned here.

Thanks again for joining me today. I am so grateful for YOU!

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