It felt appropriate to write and release this blog today (considering Thanksgiving is tomorrow!), but thankfulness shouldn’t be something we only celebrate in November. Gratitude should be our lifestyle, and it should be something we teach our students as well. Encouraging our students to reflect on what they are thankful for has numerous benefits, and the stress, comparison, jealousy, and weight that music students seem to especially face can, in part, be combatted with cultivating a grateful spirit.
So what is gratitude? The Collins Dictionary defines the word “grateful” as an adjective describing someone who is “warmly or deeply appreciative of kindness or benefits received.” While I like to think of gratitude as a choice and as an attitude and thankfulness more as an emotion, I’ll use both terms interchangeably throughout this blog.
Why Should We Cultivate Gratitude?
Here are three (among many!) reasons why we should cultivate gratitude as a daily practice both for ourselves and our students:
1) Gratitude yields appreciation and allows for fresh perspectives
This may seem elementary, but gratitude allows you to reflect on the good in your life. It is especially easy for musicians to have a distorted view of ourselves and our work. We focus our attention on the competition we just lost, the job or gig we didn’t get, the school we didn’t get into… the list goes on and on. When is the last time we reflected on our current position, for all the circumstances that allowed us to get here, or for the community around us? Gratitude helps us see the good in the world, in ourselves, and in others, and reminds us of the bigger picture.
2) Gratitude reduces stress
Gratitude has numerous neurological benefits, including stress reduction. Numerous studies over the last fifteen years have found that people who consciously practice gratitude are happier and less depressed (1). Essentially, counting your blessings activates the medial prefrontal cortex, a part of the brain that is linked to learning and decision-making, habit formation, long-term memory, and attention spans (2). Other sources claim the medial prefrontal cortex is highly involved in emotion regulation, self-conscious emotions, and empathy (3). While I’m not a medical doctor, the little research I did do on gratitude and the medial prefrontal cortex does suggest that a having an attitude of gratitude has neurological benefits and can lead to higher life satisfaction. If you’re interested in learning more about the relationship between the brain and gratitude, I recommend starting here.
3) Gratitude increases happiness
This 2017 study from Harvard found that “gratitude is strongly and consistently associated with greater happiness. Gratitude helps people feel more positive emotions, relish good experiences, improve their health, deal with adversity, and build strong relationships.” When you build the habit of noticing and reflecting on what you’re thankful for, you’ll likely start to feel more optimistic about life, connected to those around you, and you’ll be able to handle difficult situations better and with the bigger picture in mind.
“Gratitude can transform common days into thanksgivings, turn routine jobs into joy, and change ordinary opportunities into blessings.”– William Arthur Ward
Practical Ways to Practice Gratitude
There are many ways to practice gratitude, but here are three of my favorites. I encourage you to think of more on your own!
1) Keep a gratitude journal
I challenge you to write down one thing you’re thankful for each day. Journaling can really help you to slow down and notice and reflect on what you’re thankful for. Encourage your students to do this as well – perhaps it can be part of their regular assignments. Or, you can ask them before each class or lesson to write down or say at least one thing they’re thankful for. Over time, they will probably gain a better perspective on life and become more content and happy.
2) Say one thing you’re grateful for before a meal
This is something that can be done anywhere and without anything. It’s especially enjoyable to do this in the company of friends or family, where you can create an intentional time and space to practice gratitude together.
3) Write someone a thank-you note
I don’t know about you, but I treasure handwritten notes much more than texts or emails. When was the last time you wrote someone a thank-you note for something they did that you really appreciated? In addition to the benefits mentioned above, expressing your gratitude can strengthen your relationships with others. Even simply trying to say “thank-you” to others more can have a big impact on both your and their quality of life.
A Few Concluding Thoughts
- Model what living a thankful life looks like for your students.
- Gratitude is something we must practice, and must be repeatedly practiced in order to reap the benefits.
- Exchange your discontent for gratitude.
- Gratitude has the power to change the brain, if you allow it to happen.
Remember that gratitude is a choice – it’s up to you to decide whether you will have a thankful outlook on life. I hope this quick blog has convinced you that cultivating gratitude as a daily practice is vital for you and your students.
(1): Brown, Joshua, and Joel Wong. “How Gratitude Changes You and Your Brain.” Greater Good Magazine, June 6, 2017. https://greatergood.berkeley.edu/article/item/how_gratitude_changes_you_and_your_brain
(2): Euston, David R., Aaron J. Gruber, and Bruce L. McNaughton. “The Role of Medial Prefrontal Cortex in Memory and Decision Making.” Neuron 76, no. 6 (December 20, 2012):1057-70. https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC3562704/
(3): Skottnik, Leon. “The Function of the Medial Prefrontal Cortex in Emotions and Empathy.” Maastricht Student Journal of Psychology and Neuroscience 1: (July 2, 2013): 34-45. https://openjournals.maastrichtuniversity.nl/MSJPN/article/view/21#:~:text=For%20this%20reason%20the%20review,on%20a%20self%2Dother%20distinction