What are you grateful for? Some of the first things that come to mind when I’m asked this question are my family, friends, health, and home. But are we forgetting something? Did education come to mind when asked this question? For many people, this is not the case, when in reality, expressing gratitude towards education can actually have a major impact on learning outcomes.
Gratitude is generally described as a feeling of thankfulness as well as a “readiness to show appreciation for and to return kindness”. The specifics of gratitude are debated by scientists and anthropologists, however—this is because gratitude is both felt and expressed differently cross-culturally. For instance, verbal expressions of gratitude such as “thank you” are more common in the US than in other places around the world. In fact, some cultures do not use verbal phrases of gratitude at all!
Recognizing that gratitude takes many different forms around the world helps inform scientific inquiry on how to study gratitude in the first place.
But first things first—where did gratitude begin? Anthropologists point to underlying evolutionary origins and argue that gratitude may have been a part of human life since the beginning. It’s possible that the feeling of gratitude evolved to drive social reciprocity. Social reciprocity is essential for human survival; without it, humans could not properly communicate personal needs or recognize the needs of others.
Unlike many other species in the animal kingdom, humans must rely on one another a tremendous amount in order to survive. For example, babies are completely reliant on their mothers for milk and other resources. Also, humans commonly divide labor which allows people to provide a variety of necessary resources to the community. For these reasons, anthropological research argues that the feeling of gratitude evolved alongside the evolution of social reciprocity. In other words, feeling grateful for help motivates us to help others too.
In a 2005 study on emotion and trust, researchers found that when people feel grateful, it increases the amount they are able to trust strangers and individuals they are not especially familiar with. Additionally, social psychologist Sara Agloe argues that gratitude is a key player in forming close relationships with others.
Emotions of gratitude allow us to identify who has helped us in the past and who we may want to help in the future.
Now that we know a little bit about how gratitude began, we can explore some of the impacts gratitude has today.
Gratitude is clearly important: it exists all around the world and has been a part of human societies for thousands of years. Therefore, many people believe gratitude can be used in a way to positively impact people in a wide variety of settings including the home, the workplace, and the classroom. The question is, how do we do it? Gratitude science is a steadily growing area of research in which people are looking to understand the true power gratitude can have on people every day.
Kerry Howells is a gratitude researcher and educator. In her book Gratitude in Education, she shares her perspectives on the ways gratitude can influence both students and teachers. Howells recounts her personal experiences as a teacher and the difficulty that comes with conveying the importance of the information she had to share. She found that students would resent learning and wondered if there was a way to change this.
In her classroom, she began to implement gratitude strategies and she soon found that her students were reporting increased interest in the subject, increased understanding of the topics, as well as overall improvements in performance. This anecdotal evidence drove Howells to pursue gratitude research. Today, Howells is well known for her global education research on gratitude as well as her books sharing with people how they can use gratitude strategies most effectively.
In a 2014 study on student-teacher relationships, Howells found gratitude may be capable of improving student-teacher bonds. Additionally, her results show that implementing gratitude is effective in improving teachers' experiences in the classroom and within the school domain.
But the research does not end with Howells—many other researchers have been exploring these ideas as well. In a 2022 network analysis of gratitude in education, researchers examined students' messages in an online undergraduate course. In this course, students were advised to express gratitude towards other students’ comments and questions. Analysis shows a strong relationship between instances of gratitude messaging and prosocial behavior. Additionally, in a four year longitudinal investigation on middle school and high school aged students, researchers found that implementing gratitude strategies increased positive social behavior. These studies are just the beginning when it comes to understanding the benefits of gratitude practices in education.
What does this mean in the classroom? Gratitude has been observed to improve students’ sense of belonging, improve students’ learning outcomes, and even increase students’ prosocial behavior. Teachers should consider incorporating gratitude into their lesson plans. Additionally, schools should reflect on the ways they can push their student communities to feel and express gratitude. These kinds of small changes can lead to large shifts in students and teachers all around the world.
So what does this research mean for you and me? In a world of technology, social media, and world news at our fingertips, it is easy to see what is wrong with the world and even easier to forget all there is to be grateful for. Reading these articles has pushed me to start journaling about what I am grateful for before starting my workday. Whether or not you decide to start a gratitude journal, start saying “thank you” more often, or decide to tell others you are grateful for them, I urge you to consider implementing gratitude practices into your life—it only takes a little bit of time but has the power to make a lot of positive changes. So…what are you grateful for?