Research and strategies for implementing gratitude interventions in higher-education.
Every November for the past few years, my family takes a small uncarved pumpkin (leftover from Halloween), and we use it as a canvas. Every night after dinner we each write a word or phrase naming something we are thankful for that day. We have only one rule; you cannot repeat something already on the list. On Thanksgiving, we go back and read aloud all the things we have been grateful for throughout November, making us laugh, reminisce, and feel full emotionally (on top of our full bellies). This practice of gratitude is simple, yet I find that as the list on the pumpkin grows each night, I feel a little happier and a little more content with my life. In reflecting on what we are grateful for, saying it out loud, and writing it down, we are allowing it to take up presence in our consciousness. By creating this space in our day for gratitude to flourish, we are exemplifying an important life practice. And as the word “practice” indicates, gratitude is a skill we can learn, hone, and grow. There is mounting scientific evidence that gratitude can serve as a major contributor to mental health, and there is a growing body of research related specifically to gratitude interventions in higher-ed.
Whether we are faculty, staff, students, administrators, or leaders in the world of higher-ed, we are pulled in many different directions, wear many different hats, and have many competing demands. It is no wonder we often forget to pause and take stock of all the manythings for which we are grateful. How can we bring the practice of gratitude into our classes (regardless of the modality)? And further, why does it matter? What does the research have to say about gratitude and our health? What place does gratitude have in higher-ed? Let’s dive in and explore this topic through an evidence-based lens and then end with some easy ways to embody and enact gratitude in our higher-ed courses.
It may be helpful to define gratitude scientifically. A recent meta-analysis of gratitude and health characterizes gratitude as both a state and a trait. A state of gratitude is an emotional experience where we find value in something and realize that it has a positive outcome from outside of ourselves. Gratitude as a trait can be seen as a broader worldview, where one is more likely to observe and appreciate the good things in life. People who display trait gratitude tend to feel more fulfilled and have a greater ability to enjoy life’s simple pleasures. In either case, those who exhibit and experience gratitude often are more likely to show pro-social behavior and act with reciprocity. Researchers theorize that these behaviors help explain why gratitude is beneficial to both our physical and mental health. While the evidence that gratitude changes physical health is sparse in the literature, many studies demonstrate that gratitude (and specifically gratitude interventions) are associated with improved emotional well-being. Not surprisingly and likely linked, higher gratitude practice also facilitates social well-being. (Jans-Beken et al.,2019)
For those who wonder why gratitude is such a powerful tool emotionally and socially, Algoe (2012) posits that gratitude promotes opportunities to (1) establish new interpersonal connections, (2) remember extant social ties, and (3) maintain existing social relationships. It is no surprise that in the wake of the COVID-19 pandemic, learners are more likely to experience stress and anxiety at higher rates. The pandemic interrupted our lives and our ability to be regularly social. College students have expressed increased rates of stress, anxiety, and depression, even as we have moved out of isolation (Jiang et al. 2022). Thus, it is important to note that dozens of research studies from the past ten years have correlated gratitude interventions with positive effects on our emotions, specifically helping to reduce stress and anxiety. Gratitude interventions could be a game-changer in higher-ed, as it stands to reason that learners who are less anxious and stressed will likely experience better learning outcomes (Hysenbegasi et al., 2005).
Many of the studies specific to gratitude interventions in college classes have shown that learners not only perform better in the course but also leave the course with more positive emotions, which can spill over into other aspects of the learners’ lives (Datu & Bernardo, 2020; Datu et al., 2022; Gleason, 2022, Grier & Morris, 2022). So what does it mean to have a gratitude intervention? In most cases, it was as simple as the researchers/instructors offering a weekly gratitude journal assignment. These low-stakes opportunities allowed learners to reflect on their lives and simply list a few (usually five) things/events/people for which they were grateful. Other interventions included writing letters of gratitude or attending one-time gratitude workshops. While these kinds of assignments might not be a fit for every class, there can certainly be a place for such interventions on occasion. Student success teams could encourage these practices outside of class time, or provide gratitude workshops. Faculty could demonstrate and allow time for such practices in their high-stress courses. Online course designers could conclude modules or weeks with simple gratitude surveys. If we can help our learners to reflect on their lives with a gratitude lens, we might all benefit.
So, it turns out that my family’s little Thankful Pumpkin was onto something. My feelings of contentment after each night of adding gratitude to our gourd stems from something more profound. This little pumpkin is my family’s gratitude intervention, and now I want to figure out how to keep us all practicing and honing this skill all year long. So, if you have made it to the end of this blog post, I want to say thanks. Thanks for reading, and thanks for considering this blog post worthy of your precious time. I am grateful that you are here. I hope that you are grateful for this message and will consider how you can carry it forward in your life and your work.
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