How Gratitude Can Change Your Life

adult-backlit-beach-320007Have you ever noticed how people experiencing the same thing can react so differently? Why is it that some who face a loss or disappointment maintain a surprisingly upbeat spirit, while others wallow in self-pity or anger? Some seemingly shrug it off while others are consumed by it. Some battle through it, sustained by their resilience, hope, and faith, while others suffer from feelings of entitlement or victimhood. Same situations; polar opposite reactions.

For most of us, it’s more natural to struggle when adversity strikes—at least initially. After all, we may feel hurt, disappointed, lonely, scared, or angry. That’s why people who are able to stay positive, even under life’s most difficult trials, really stand out.

Do these people have a special ingredient? I believe they do, and that ingredient is gratefulness. Regardless of their circumstances, grateful people find a way to call on their blessings and appreciate what they have. They choose to see the glass as half full. They are sustained by hope. They view adversity as a challenge and an opportunity for growth. And, despite living in a materialistic world, they don’t allow economic circumstances to dictate their happiness. (In my experience, this is the most common takeaway from students who go on mission trips.)

Those of us who are surrounded by parents, family members, teachers, mentors, and coaches who model this character trait are much more likely to be grateful than those who are not. Gratitude has a way of “rubbing off” on others because it is such an inspirational and admirable virtue. As you self reflect on your “gratitude quotient,” consider the following proven benefits:

  1. Gratitude improves your physical health. Studies have shown that grateful people have fewer aches and pains (yes, you read that right), and are more likely to take care of their physical health. They tend to practice healthy habits such as exercising and getting regular check-ups, which can contribute to increased longevity and life quality.
  2. Grateful people have better sleep. Here’s a tip: spend a few minutes jotting down what you’re thankful before bed every night, and you will likely have a longer and more restful sleep.
  3. Gratitude helps create better relationships. Of course, saying “thank you” is a practice of good manners, but a 2014 study in Emotion shows that it can also win you new friends! Saying “thank you” to an acquaintance makes them more likely to seek out further engagement. So, whether you’re thanking the local barista for your latte or a distant relative for graduation gift, acknowledging their efforts can open the door to new and better relationships.
  4. Gratitude can help improve your self-esteem. For years, research has shown that gratitude can help reduce stress. However, a 2014 study published in Journal of Applied Sport Psychology has shown that practicing thankfulness can actually play a major role in overcoming trauma and cultivating resilience. Recognizing all you’re grateful for—even in the hardest of times—can be life changing.
  5. Gratitude can reduce aggression (and increase empathy). Did you know that grateful people are more likely to act in a pro-social manner, even when the people around them are acting negatively? Grateful people are less resentful and retaliatory and demonstrate greater empathy and understanding (than those who do not engage in gratitude practices).

Of course, this looks different for everyone (some people write in a gratitude journal, some people silently acknowledge all that they are grateful for, others decide to pay it forward), but the point is that being thankful can completely transform your life. Here are some additional ideas to build your “gratitude quotient:”

  1. Actively seek out and surround yourself with grateful people. Ask them to share how they maintain a positive attitude while facing adversity and disappointment. Some of their strategies may work for you.
  2. Volunteer to help those less fortunate. This is especially beneficial to counter an entitlement mentality.
  3. Maintain your sense of hope in all circumstances. Consider when you overcame challenges and draw on them when new situations arise.

Developing gratitude is an especially beneficial life practice for teens and young adults, as they are constantly inundated with messages telling them they need to be better, look different, buy certain things, and generally just “keep up” with the people around them (not to mention the peer pressure they feel on a daily basis!). Gratitude is a powerful antidote to entitlement.

So, whether you’re a teen, college student, parent, or educator, know that we can all use some of these positive side effects in our lives! This holiday season, we encourage you to begin the daily habit of practicing gratitude. Meditate silently on your blessings, jot down a bullet-pointed list every night, or talk about what you’re thankful for around the dinner table. However you do it, pay close attention to how it transforms your inner world and the world around you for the better.

Let’s make Thanksgiving Day every day.

(For more way gratitude can change your life, check out this article published in Psychology Today.)

 

 

Student Anxiety: An Ounce of Prevention (Part Three)

During the past two weeks, we’ve shared the various ways that parents can help reverse the worrisome trends in adolescent anxiety. If you didn’t catch them, you can find them here and here.

This week, we’d like to close our series by addressing the pivotal role our educators can play in reducing student anxiety. Of course, we know that schools and universities are, by definition, bastions of anxiety! After all, students are measured every which way from Sunday and are surrounded by a contagion of similarly anxious peers! That said, there are any number of strategies school leaders can employ that would return student anxiety to more normal, healthy levels. Here are our top five recommendations:

  1. Promote a positive and empowering school culture. The school environment plays a major role in the health and well being of students. How would you describe your school’s brand and core values? What three words best describe the character and learning environment for your students? If your school hasn’t adopted a set of values that administrators, teachers, and students abide by, consider this an urgent priority. Qualities like kindness, compassion, and integrity are foremost on our minds at LifeSmart, and we always encourage schools to take what we call, “the Integrity Challenge.” (This is where students are empowered to only say neutral to positive things about others who are not present.) Another suggestion is to have each class create a brand and core values statement and commit to holding each other accountable. Let’s do this! #positiveculture
  2. Expand leadership/life skills offerings. Evidence is pervasive that high school graduates are not adequately prepared for their next steps. Arguably, one reason is that schools are so focused on their immediate step that insufficient time is devoted to the transition to the next (e.g., high school to college/workforce). We urge administrators to expand leadership and life skills-oriented courses that holistically prepare students for independent living and their next stage. These would include leadership, soft skills, college/career readiness, personal finance, and home management. Such courses build essential skills, instill self-confidence, and help students cope with the pressures of their present and future situations. The better prepared they are, the less anxious they will be. #lifesmart
  3. End the “college for all” messaging. Based on deteriorating college graduation trends and high student demand for mental health services in college, it is clear that many are not college ready and would be better off pursuing other paths. Whether overt or subliminal, messages promoting the college path are commonplace. How does this affect anxiety? Droves of unprepared and dispirited students drop out of college and into uncertainty. Others struggle mightily in college when another path (e.g., trade school, workforce) was a more compatible choice. Still other high schoolers feel inadequate if they don’t pursue the broadly recommended college path. How is your messaging? #whateverisbest
  4. Review homework levels. Given how early students rise before school and require above-average levels of sleep, homework should be reasonable. Yet, we’ve often heard of schools assigning up to four hours of homework on weeknights, creating a workday that is more demanding than their parents! This, together with a lack of coordination among teachers in terms of exams and major projects, is an obvious source of student anxiety. How reasonable is their workload? #theyneedalife
  5. Career selection pressure.  Many high schools are ramping up their career readiness programs, and we applaud that. However, some are taking this to a degree that students are feeling pressure to know what career (and potentially, college major) they should be pursuing. We think that’s taking things too far. In the high school years, students are still discovering themselves and aren’t in a position to weigh all the career alternatives, fully assess their skills and interests, possess all the necessary knowledge to make an informed judgment, and speak with/job shadow practitioners in those fields. We strongly support efforts to build career awareness, but when students feel pressure (as many do!) to know exactly which field they should enter, that’s an overreach. And, remember, many college students change their majors multiple times, and a large measure of college graduates regret the major they chose! Focus on the process, but not the selection in the high school years. Finally, let’s not push STEM as their only ticket to success. It’s not.

Whether you’re a parent, educator, or other interested party, we hope you found value in our series on preventing and reducing student anxiety. We all have a stake in improving these trends, and we wish you the best in your efforts with the adolescents under your guidance.