Head of School Blog: On Gratitude

Last Tuesday, I spent a few minutes at All-School Meeting sharing with the students why Thanksgiving, apart from its unsettling historical origins, has always been my favorite holiday. First, I argued, it is inclusive: you don’t have to believe in a particular god or identify with a certain religion to participate, and though it happens to be an American holiday, no one checks your passport at the dinner table because the spirit of Thanksgiving is that all are welcome. Second, it is non-commercial… you don’t lose sight of its meaning in a haze of gift-giving, tv specials, and holiday jingles. Third, it brings families, all kinds of families, together and reminds us that it is our relationships with the ones we love that matter most. But the real reason I love Thanksgiving is that, at its core, it’s a celebration of gratitude, and to co-opt (and counter) Gordon Gecko’s mantra from the 1987 film Wall Street, “Gratitude, for lack of a better word, is good.”  


Not long ago, columnist Arthur Brooks published an essay entitled, “Choose to be Grateful. It Will Make you Happier,” in which he argued that the conscious decision to act grateful, even if it is forced, can actually make you feel grateful. Acknowledging that for many people, gratitude is difficult, because life is difficult, Brooks nonetheless shares evidence that suggests that we can actively choose to practice gratitude—and that doing so raises our happiness. He cites a study in which participants were randomly assigned either to keep a short weekly list of the things they were grateful for or to maintain a similar inventory of hassles or neutral events. Ten weeks later, the first group enjoyed significantly greater life satisfaction than the others. In other words, if you want a truly happy holiday, choose to keep the “thanks” in Thanksgiving, whether you feel it or not.


In an essay published in Forbes Magazine entitled “How a 60-Second Expression of Gratitude Can Change Your Life,” leadership strategist Peter Himmelman invokes the age-old Hebrew prayer of thanks called the Modeh Ani. Upon waking each morning, he disciplines himself to cite three small things he is thankful for. As an example, he offers the simple statement, ‘I am thankful to be in a space with a roof that protects me from the rain.’ The idea of being protected from rain is so basic to most of us, he adds, “that we forget how many people in the world don’t have this luxury.” He, too, cites the mounting evidence “that a simple and low cost practice of enunciation of one’s thanks can have an enormous impact on mental well-being and creativity, especially if practiced consistently.”


Last Tuesday, in that spirit, I walked my captive audience through an exercise. First, I invited them to still their bodies and their minds, sit quietly, even close their eyes if they needed to. Then, I asked them to think of something or someone (other than the coming break from school!) that they were thankful for. “Dwell on this item for a few seconds,” I urged, “and in your mind, express your gratitude.” To model my intent, I invited a student to the center space and shared with the others that I was grateful for him because in the morning, when I greet students at carpool, he always takes the time to ask me how I am doing, a simple but sincere and surprisingly rare gesture that has meant a lot to this newcomer.


I went on to tell the students, “Now if your thing is not something you want to share with your neighbor, that’s fine; put it away for safekeeping and briefly think of an alternative that you would be willing to share...got it?… now when I give you the cue, turn to the person next to you and share it… and those of you who are listening, please respond with a short but sweet statement: “Thank you for sharing; how lucky this must make you feel.”


Morse Hall was suddenly alive and abuzz with joyful noise of gratitude. And that felt good.

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