It Was Hard to See the Good in 2021 — Until I Started Practicing Gratitude

Between school closures, learning loss, intense teacher burnout, widespread staffing and increased stress at home, it was hard not to focus on the negatives in education this year. In fact, it is human nature to get caught up in what went wrong – an innate survival mechanism called ‘negativity bias’ that alerts us to fears and risks so that we can better remember and avoid threats.

While I appreciate that my ancestors were careful people, in 2021 I often see myself and others trapped in this negative mindset, always counting losses and waiting for the next bad thing to happen.

However, in my work with teachers this year, I’m beginning to notice that some have been able to metabolize this negativity and keep themselves and their classrooms positive and adaptable despite the obvious drawbacks. Interviews with elementary teachers in a variety of settings and grade levels revealed that these resilient teachers used a common strategy: They practiced gratitude in their daily lives.

As a developmental psychologist, I have learned that practicing gratitude, even in small doses, has been shown to increase happiness and positive affect, reduce depression and stress, and support social relationships and physical health, especially sleep. But its full effect didn’t click for me until I saw how others benefited from taking the time to jot down the things they were grateful for. I’ve seen how teachers boost their happiness by highlighting small wins worth celebrating, such as helping a student acquire a new skill, preparing a delicious meal for their family, or setting aside an hour for a hobby or exercise. Thus began my journey of strengthening the muscles of gratitude to help fend off negative thoughts and make room for joy in 2021.

Small start to big change

I started small, by consciously noticing and appreciating the little pleasures around me: my warm cup of coffee, this text from a friend, my cat’s inability to drink water without dipping her head completely into the bowl. I started naming one thing I was grateful for before joining online meetings and jotting down the things that make me happy throughout the day. Rather than being frustrated that I had to do classroom notes via video conferencing this year, I noticed how grateful I was to still be able to see the young learners and reminded myself how much I appreciate the teachers supporting their students through all these unprecedented changes. Every night before I went to bed, instead of spending my time relaxing making tomorrow’s to-do list, I listed three things I was grateful for.

Faster than I imagined, I noticed a difference. I felt less dismayed on a Monday morning as I bolstered my appreciation for my company’s flexible schedule. I was less annoyed with my wife because I was more aware of everything he was doing to support our family. I found myself able to laugh more easily at things and disengage from the vortex of anxiety because perceiving everything that was going on right broadened my perspective and allowed me to view a particular problem as one small data point within a larger constellation of experiences.

On the days when the good was more difficult to recognize, I pushed myself to interact with artifacts that I knew would compel me to acknowledge the gifts I possessed. Looking — I mean really looking — at my wedding photo, or my diplomas, or my grandmother’s necklace, or my nephews’ drawings on the fridge, allowed me to give thanks and worry about sitting in the back seat, if only for a moment.

I’ve also found that once you start practicing gratitude, it doesn’t stay personal; It extends to your relationships. When I ended the meeting with a quick “Thank you for…” I not only felt more positive about my work but also started receiving more gratitude and offers of help from my colleagues.

As a very busy aunt, I have introduced gratitude practices to include my nieces. During meals or while driving, we ask them to tell us the best part of their day and what they are looking forward to. With my older niece, we started keeping a gratitude bowl filled with little notes containing things we are grateful for. We agreed we could check out and read it whenever we needed additional picking. So far, they are better than me at recognizing their little joys, so if you’re struggling to find the positive, I recommend asking a 6-year-old.

What struck me most about exploring gratitude this year is how deceptively simple but poignant it is. I’ve learned that having an appreciative and positive view of life is not an innate personality trait or a perspective formed out of extreme hardship or privilege. Learning to recognize and acknowledge the gifts and goodness around us is a skill that can be developed with practice and effort, just like other academic or socio-emotional skills.

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