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On Gratitude: A Note from our SEL Center Director

30 November 2018 |

Written by Elizabeth Devaney, SEL Center Director

Gratitude.  It’s a word that gets thrown around a lot this time of year.  But what does it really mean when all the messages we receive are about getting and buying rather than making and giving?  My daughter Julia made a thankfulness tree this year for our Thanksgiving table.  She created beautiful little cards for all of us to fill out with the things we are thankful for.  My parents were in town for the occasion and on the big day Julia instructed us all to write down the things we were thankful for and put them on the tree. We got a slow start – mostly the usual stuff…our family, this nice dinner we were about to have, the fact that Grandy and Grandpa were with us.  But as the day wore on, people started to get a little more creative. One card read “Food (especially cheese!)”. A few that stood out - “My kitchen window and the birds” “Cultural exchange, meeting new people, and my new family” “The perfect music for your mood” and “My mom’s hugs and kisses.”

So I got to thinking about what gratitude really means and the difference between being grateful and thankful.  Maybe it is just semantics, but I think lumping gratitude in with thankfulness changes its meaning.  Being thankful is about recognizing what we have, being aware of when we may have more than our neighbor, and holding greed and complacency at bay.  We would all do well to remember to be thankful every day, not just once a year. 

But gratitude, to me, is a little bit different.  Gratitude is recognizing joy in small moments – it’s that feeling you get when your colleague gracefully buys your coffee on the day you left your wallet at home by accident; or when the sunlight hits the freshly fallen snow and creates a nearly blinding display of sparkles just when you are starting to curse the freezing temperatures; or when a child you love gives you a hug so tight you almost have to gasp for air; or when you buy yourself a pretty bouquet of spring flowers because they caught your eye at the market. 

It is excruciatingly hard to remember to be grateful day in and day out.  There are a lot of things that compete with gratitude – looming deadlines, to do lists, bills, obligations.  To help myself remember the things that I am grateful for, I started writing a gratitude journal about a year ago.  I start with the date, and then write out 5 things (generally no more and never less) that I am grateful for. Then I end with one thing I am going to do that day to cultivate gratitude or joy or connection.  I try to stay away from big lofty things and focus on the small things from the previous day that I am grateful for and something super manageable that I can do that day.  Here’s a typical entry from a few weeks ago: 

November 14, 2018

Grateful for:

  1. Trader Joe’s chocolate croissants (have you tried them? OMG!)
  2. The first fire of the season
  3. Feeling cozy and fall-like this weekend
  4. Dawn’s warm smile at work
  5. Snuggling with Eoin

Today: Peace. Breathe. Use time at salon to read and relax not work.

Pretty simple.  It takes about 5 minutes. My goal is to get to it every day in that quiet 45 minutes before the rest of the house wakes up.  In all honesty I only manage it 3-4 times per week.  But on the days I do it, I notice a difference.  And when I’m consistent about it for at least a week, I feel more connected to the people I work with, my family, and myself. 


SEL Center Tip - Practicing gratitude with young people

Gratitude doesn’t always come easy. It takes practice to get good at it. Try it yourself.  And then try it with the young people you work with in your classrooms and programs. 

These sentence prompts may help you begin the process.  Three ways to use these prompts:

  • Put students into small groups and have each participant choose one prompt. Ask them to share their response with the group. 
  • Choose one prompt to read aloud to the whole group at the start of every class or session and allow children to share their thoughts with a partner or briefly write down their answer in a journal. 
  • Send the prompts home with children so that they can use them with their family. 

Sometimes all it takes is dedicated time to reflect and a prompt to start the conversation! 


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