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The Science of Gratitude

Gratitude is on trend, especially in these November weeks. As everyone heads toward Thanksgiving break (are we there yet?), the topic of gratitude may pop into social media feeds or casual conversation more than usual. Some timely happenings are easy to be grateful for: the sudden influx of pie, an upcoming holiday season with all its attendant cheer and time off, and crisp autumn leaves that burst with such vivid color. Other things are less palatable: another tough school year marked with the recovery of learning, a country that is increasingly polarized, and a disease trifecta (dubbed a “tripledemic”) of RSV, flu and covid. Placing focus on being thankful without veering into toxic positivity increases the emotional value of zeroing in on gratitude, which is a practice that is not only backed by science, but that can also be extended to the work teachers do with kids during these complex times.

The Nun Study

In the mid-1980s, a research study on Alzheimer’s Disease was conducted with a group of nuns who were members of the School Sisters of Notre Dame. While the results contained many intentional findings about the connections between daily lifestyle and likelihood of developing Alzheimer’s Disease, there were also some peripheral findings that proved fascinating. Most notably, the nuns who kept a journal or record of positive musings on gratitude were less likely to experience cognitive decline. Even though the original purpose of the study remained intact, the potential power of intentionally making space for gratitude as part of daily conscious practice gained traction and momentum for additional research. Now, several related studies later, there is ample reason to believe that taking time each day to think about thankfulness makes a significant impact on our ultimate health and wellbeing. Even better, gratitude journaling is a straightforward and quick practice that can be replicated easily in classrooms just by asking students to write down one thing each day that they are thankful for.

Captain Plumb’s Parachute

During the Vietnam War, a Navy captain named Charlie Plumb flew 74 successful combat missions until five days before he was scheduled to conclude his tour of duty, when his plane was shot down. He spent five years as a prisoner of war, after which he returned home and had a life-changing and accidental encounter with a sailor who had been in Vietnam at the same time. As it turns out, this sailor (whom Captain Plumb had never met) was the very person who packed the parachute that saved Captain Plumb’s life, and after meeting this man who performed such a seemingly small but life-saving act, Captain Plumb began seeing gratitude differently. He also began making motivational speeches, and after he shares his story, he is known for asking participants, “Who packs your parachute?” This powerful idea reinforces that nobody is alive and well because they exist in isolation. We all have others who sustain us, and it helps for both teachers and students to remind one another about those who metaphorically pack our parachutes.

Gratitude Letters

Writing is therapeutic, and it can also change lives. In a study on gratitude that involved about 300 adult participants, Indiana University research psychologists Joshua Brown and Joel Wong compared a group that was assigned to write letters of gratitude each day with two other groups, one who wrote about negative experiences and another that acted as a control group. When the study concluded, the results found that “compared with the participants who wrote about negative experiences or only received counseling, those who wrote gratitude letters reported significantly better mental health four weeks and 12 weeks after their writing exercise ended.” There were several related powerful findings from this same study, including the revelations that gratitude does not have to be shared to be helpful, and that the positive benefits of expressing gratitude grow with time. 

Sharing Gratitude in Class

Students appreciate explicit instruction, and that includes the direct communication of helpful information. First, teaching about the Nun Study and Captain Plumb’s experiences by using the many resources available online (including some captivating videos) makes the exercise of being grateful far easier to buy into. In addition, working the practice of writing into experimenting with gratitude increases the benefits students experience over time. Then, any number of activities act as accessible additions to instruction. For example, students might write one thing they are grateful for each day on strips of paper that teachers post on classroom or hallway walls. They could write about their gratitude more in-depth, either through journaling or in a more creative realm, like poetry. Perhaps everyone could share why they are grateful for one another, either in an online sharing location (like a Jamboard or Padlet) or by making cards. Another option is for either teachers or students to share a daily quotation about gratitude and process it briefly in discussion or in writing before daily instruction begins.

Simply put, gratitude matters, and not just around Thanksgiving. Making the practice of being grateful more intentional does not seek to brush aside what might make us anxious or unhappy, but it does point a flashlight at precious details that we might otherwise be too preoccupied or busy to notice. When times become especially difficult, even the simplest of pleasures can change a dark moment and make life not just bearable, but beautiful. 

Written by Miriam Plotinsky, Education World Contributing Writer

Miriam Plotinsky is an instructional specialist with Montgomery County Public Schools in Maryland, where she has taught and led for more than 20 years. She is the author of Teach More, Hover Less and Lead Like a Teacher. She is also a National Board-Certified Teacher with additional certification in administration and supervision. She can be reached at or via Twitter: @MirPloMCPS