We all know that our mood affects everything and everyone around us. Bad traffic, a difficult start to the day, feeling overworked or underappreciated — any one of these can send us into a tailspin of anger and resentment.
This summer, I had the pleasure of hearing Dr. Kerry Howells — a professor at the University of Tasmania — speak on the topic of deep gratitude. Dr. Howells’ work has focused on high performing athletes — specifically, members of the Australian Olympic team. It seems that when athletes and coaches cultivate gratitude, the athletes experience improved learning and performance.
Why would this be so? Gratitude centers us in the moment and counters the debilitating effects of disappointment, worry, perfectionism, and resentment. When we are centered and in the moment, we are more available for learning — able to focus our entire self on what we need to do now.
In addition, however, and perhaps most importantly, gratitude is crucial to flourishing relationships. Without it, cords of connection fray and ultimately break. In her book, The Gift of Thanks: The Roots and Rituals of Gratitude, Margaret Visser writes:
Where there is no gratitude, there is no meaningful movement; human affairs become rocky, painful, coldly indifferent, unpleasant, and finally break off altogether. The social ‘machinery’ grinds along and soon seizes up.
When I heard her speak, Dr. Howells challenged the audience to consider how the cultivation of a practice of gratitude — particularly by the adults in our schools — would impact not only student learning, but even school culture.
And what is gratitude? Dr. Howells offered three key characteristics:
- Gratitude is a practice — an ongoing discipline that we live into daily, regardless of our mood and regardless of how we feel in the moment.
- Gratitude is offered freely, in genuine appreciation for something we have received from another, with no expectation of anything is return.
- Gratitude is something we need to give and receive.
It made me wonder — how could a personal, intentional practice of gratitude better insure that every person in our community feels seen, known, and appreciated? How might such a practice help each of us be more calmly and fully present in our school communities, classrooms, and daily lives?
As Episcopal schools, we are lucky to have tools right at our finger tips: the practice of giving thanks in worship; the ways students are able to express gratitude in chapel, convocation, or assembly; the simple, daily acts of gratitude that we can offer to one another; a culture of connection and belonging; and perhaps most importantly, the knowledge that God is love.
As we begin a new school year, with all of its promise and possibility, I wonder how we as the adults-in-charge might cultivate an ongoing disposition of deep gratitude — for young people, for their families, for one another — and engage with gratitude in this sacred work of teaching and learning.