Gratitude and giving thanks

“Being consciously grateful requires practise and commitment. Here are a few ideas to get you started…” Our #WellnessWednesday blog this week comes from our school psychologist Mrs Teresa Yell on gratitude and how you can actively practice in your daily life.

I love “Thanksgiving”. Don’t get me wrong, I am not a fan of all things American, but I do love Thanksgiving.  It is in second place after Christmas. The reason being that my family, my friends and I all get together around a dinner table and celebrate all that we are thankful for- besides the good food and good company. We go around the table allowing each person to mention a few things he or she is grateful for, as we all reflect on the year that has passed. I wonder what 2020 Thanksgiving will look like.

As a child, along with all the days of wine and roses constantly being over for me, I was told to count “my blessings”. This is what inspired the “new” tradition in my home. I realised that, along with all the trials and tribulations that occur in any specific year, what I chose to focus on made all the difference. If I remained focussed on the stress and negative occurrences this was likely how I would end the year and then start the new year on the same wrong foot. I had to consciously choose my focus and literally “count my blessings”.

Research backs up this idea and shows that being grateful “shifts attention away from negative emotions such as resentment and envy and minimizes rumination” (PsychologyToday) – which are all notably hallmarks of depression. Neuroscience wights in on this where “changes in the molecular structure of your brain” are noted when you practice gratitude, allowing you to be less resistant and more open to new ideas and change (Canfield, 2019).

When we cultivate an attitude of gratitude, we are left feeling more peaceful, less reactive and more resilient – our energy levels increase as does our enthusiasm for life (Canfield, 2019). Other research (Mager, 2014) has shown that living a grateful life has numerous benefits:

  • We are less likely to focus the pettiness that accompanies day -to day annoyances
  • It takes away our need for pity parties and evaporates selfishness
  • It facilitates contentment
  • It reduces anxiety
  • Improves our sleep patterns
  • Promotes physical health
  • Strengthens relationships
  • Reminds us we are part of something bigger

 In other words, we need to realise that an attitude of gratitude is actually a “good health choice” (Eikenberry, 2020). It seems grateful people are less likely to have physical and mental health ailments (Psychology Today).

So how can we cultivate an attitude of gratitude? Another truism garnered from my youth is that nothing worthwhile is ever easy. Being consciously grateful requires practise and commitment. Here are a few ideas to get you started:

  1. Keep a journal. Writing down all the good things that happen to you helps you to remember them. Remembering them helps you to shift your focus to that which works and away from that which doesn’t. Start by writing two or three things down on a daily basis. (Psychology Today)
  2. Say “thank you” as often as possible. You can do this by phoning, texting or even writing someone a letter/email of thanks especially if it is to someone who helped you make changes for the better (Kamen, 2015).
  3. It is also suggested that we engage in “mental subtraction”. In other words, we imagine our lives without specific positive events (PsychologyToday). Perhaps another way of putting this is to think of the “undeserved bad things versus the unearned good things that have happened in your life” (Marmer, 2018). I constantly marvel at how fortunate I am that I live on a farm just 45 minutes from the sea. I hate imagining my life without this.
  4. The Dalai Lama suggests we focus on what we do have rather than what is missing from our lives (Robinson, 2019). This is where taking a break from social media may come in quite handy. People only seem to post about the fabulous things they are doing which can awaken the green-eyed monster in any one of us. Remember envy, narcissism, cynicism, self-pity etc. are all “thieves of gratitude” (Psychology Today).
  5. Pay it forward.  Gratitude is contagious. Saying thank you enhances feel good feelings in others who are then more likely to practise positivity in their own lives. Generosity, helpfulness and compassion are all close companions of gratitude.

Have “Thanksgiving” with your families this year. As interesting as 2020 has been there is much to be grateful for. I got to spend 5 weeks with my grown-up children, I reconnected with family and friends of old, learned how to bulk buy , plan ahead and cook (for which my family has expressed gratitude on numerous occasions). Counting your blessings really works and I am so grateful to my mother for teaching me this.  

Quotes about gratitude from some of our junior pupils:

Who is Teresa Yell?

Ms Teresa Yell is Kingswood College’s Educational Psychologist and has practiced in the field for 15 years. She completed her postgraduate studies at RAU (Rand Afrikaans University) and her undergraduate degree at the UND (University of Natal, Durban). She is mother to two children, a daughter and son. She was the resident psychologist at both Dainfern College and Christ Church College in Johannesburg for nine years and ran a busy private practice from her home. They moved to Makhanda (Grahamstown) in 2016, and live on a small farm outside of town.


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