Research by the leading scientific expert on gratitude, Professor Robert Emmons, shows that gratitude is a skill that we can develop with effort and practice.
People who practise gratitude regularly:
- experience more positive emotions and report feeling happier
- experience fewer negative emotions
- become more optimistic
- have stronger immune systems
- are more generous towards others
- sleep better. (Emmons, 2010)
When people carry out an exercise known as the ‘gratitude letter’, they report immediate and significant boosts to their levels of happiness that last up to one month (Seligman et al., 2005). In the exercise, they write to someone special in their lives to express appreciation for that person and then give them the letter.
What is gratitude?
Gratitude is a positive emotion that is felt after being the beneficiary of a gift. Gratitude is normally directed towards another person (the giver of the gift) and can often be felt towards a ‘higher power’ or something greater than oneself. It is often felt when a gift is not necessarily deserved, or comes as a surprise, and when there is no reciprocity expected in the giving of the gift.
It is important to note that we can express gratitude for ordinary, everyday things such as a beautiful sunrise, or our health, or the breakfast we are about to eat. When we practise appreciating the small things we normally take for granted, they can be viewed as ‘gifts’. Practising gratitude not only helps us feel happier, but it boosts our immune system and helps make us more generous towards others.
Show your class this clip from Action for Happiness (The Happiness Challenge – Part 2: Being grateful for the good things). It follows two people as they give gratitude letters to people they appreciate.
Ask your class:
- How did you feel watching people giving their gratitude letters to their friends?
- Why did the people say they felt ‘emotional’?
- Why is it that doing nice things for others can make people cry?
Your class could then move on to writing their own gratitude letters using the supporting resource.
Follow-up questions after the gratitude exercise
Once students have written their gratitude letters, the important next step is to post the letters or, even better, for them to give the letters to the recipients in person. When everyone has given their letter to someone they are grateful for, discuss the following questions.
- How did it feel to write your gratitude letter?
- Is the person you wrote to someone you normally express gratitude towards?
- Did the person you wrote to tell you how it made them feel to receive the letter?
- Did any parts of the exercise feel uncomfortable? (It’s important to acknowledge that expressing gratitude can feel awkward if we aren’t in the habit of doing it and we don’t know how the person who receives the letter will react)
- Is there anyone else you’d like to write a gratitude letter to, now that you have done it once?
Other tips for developing students' gratitude
- Regularly ask your students to write down three things they are grateful for and why. This activity shifts our focus onto what we have rather than what we are lacking.
- At the end of each week, get your students to think of three classmates who have done something they are grateful for. They can jot their thanks on a sticky note and give it to that person.
- Repeat the gratitude letter exercise once a term. That means your students will write three gratitude letters in a year. It will get them into the habit of thanking the people who they normally take for granted.
Emmons, R. (2010) ‘Why gratitude is good’. Greater Good Magazine.
Download Adrian Bethune's classroom resource, Practising gratitude.