Sunday, November 24, 2013

ThanksGiving Can Change Your Life Forever

I love Thanksgiving, it's my favorite holiday, mostly because it lacks the commerciality of most other holidays, despite the regrettable efforts of retailers to shift the focus to Black Friday. It's a national celebration of family, food and football, three of my favorite things. Beyond that, it's a day that reminds us that we should be grateful for what we have- rather than focusing on what we want to receive- like most other holidays.

Expressing gratitude to others tells the people we appreciate that we also find value in them, that we admire and respect them. Ironically, expressing that appreciation can affect our own happiness more than most people think, as you can see here:

In late April of last year, I decided to work towards building a culture of appreciation and kindness at East Greenwich High School after seeing Angela Maier's You Matter Ted Talk and understanding the power of her message.

In the first five months, the internal teacher-to-teacher "You Matter" communication program that I designed has produced 527 messages of recognition and appreciation between and among our teachers. In just twelve weeks, the @EGHSmatters Twitter account that opened the door for student, parents and the community to participate in sharing messages of appreciation and kindness has grown from zero to 310 followers on Twitter producing more than 1177 messages of kindness and appreciation that have been exchanged within our school community.  And we are just scratching the surface.

That being said, can a spark of appreciation really lead to a school culture that values gratefulness? James Fowler, an associate professor of political science at the University of California, San Diego, with Dr. Nicholas Christakis, a medical sociology professor at Harvard Medical School, decided to see if one person’s initial generosity could spark a chain reaction of benevolence. They found that, compared with those who hadn’t benefited from others’ generosity, study participants who received money in an earlier game were more likely to give money in a later game. Ultimately, the initial person’s contribution was multiplied up to three times — a result in keeping with earlier findings on social contagion, suggesting that this sort of ripple effect continues for three degrees of separation.

What does that mean for potential implications within a school culture?  Dr. Jeffrey J. Froh, assistant professor of psychology at Hofstra University surveyed 1,035 students ages 14 to 19 and found that grateful students reported higher grades, more life satisfaction, better social integration and less envy and depression than their peers who were less thankful and more materialistic. Additionally, feelings of gratitude had a more powerful impact on the students’ lives overall than materialism.

Kent State University’s Dr. Steven Toepfer's research demonstrated that students who wrote messages that were positive, expressive, required some insight and reflection, were nontrivial and contained a high level of appreciation or gratitude saw their happiness increase after each letter. "The more they wrote, the better they felt,” says Toepfer, who also witnessed improvement in participants’ life satisfaction and gratitude throughout the study.

A 2007 study published in the Journal of Research in Personality found that “gratitude is uniquely important to well-being and social life” and proved that over time gratitude leads to lower stress and depression and higher levels of social support. Work by researchers at UCDavis shows that “grateful people report higher levels of positive emotions, life satisfaction, vitality, optimism and lower levels of depression and stress.”

In fact, 26 separate academic articles and studies around the world show the benefits of saying “Thank You.” Here are some highlights from those findings:
  • Expressions of gratitude reinforce social and moral behavior.
  • Frequent opportunity to express gratitude leads to increased well-being, better health, better exercise habits, higher life satisfaction and increased optimism.
  • Grateful people get more sleep.
  • A one-time act of thoughtful gratitude produces an immediate 10% increase in happiness and 35% reduction in depressive symptoms that lasts for months.
  • Writing messages of gratitude produces a cumulative effect that increases month after month.
  • Gratitude (which focuses us on others) and materialism (which focuses us on ourselves) are inversely related.
EGHSmatters began as an experiment, but it wasn't until I saw how it affected our teachers, and then our students that I truly began to reflect on myself and notice how happy and positive I have become every day. In fact, the most recently sent internal You Matter message was to me and it reads, in part, "The culture of this school has changed dramatically in large part to your efforts. Your positive energy is infectious. Keep it up." Another from last week said, "Thank you for doing what you do- you deserve such great things, as that's what you put out in the universe every minute."

It was hard for me to understand how negative I was before I began to regularly share the things I noticed and appreciated about the people that I work for every day in my school. Negativity is a habit. We all have something that we could be negative about every day if we chose to be. As an Assistant Principal, my job description oftentimes is "fix it," no matter what it is.  That can be frustrating, intimidating and difficult task at any given moment. When each immediate concern, conflict or irritation is resolved or forgotten a person's mind can naturally find something else negative to concern itself with in this position. It's a vicious cycle.

Practicing gratitude changed this. And it's so easy and pleasant to do. The more you express your appreciation for others, the more positive thoughts replace those negative ones. It puts situations into perspective. Opportunities to show appreciation become something that you actively seek out. Every day at work, I find constant reminders that I am surrounded by amazing people who are accomplishing incredible, creative, collaborative, brilliant things every hour of the day. I am fortunate to be working in a place like East Greenwich High School, and I never forget that.

As you walk the halls at EGHS and look at the smiles and faces of our school community, it is easy to discover through other people's eyes that there is something different going on this year. Whether it's when a Twitter account that could have turned into cyber bullying was created, and EG refused to participate, or the fact that I have made three times as many positive phone calls home to parents this year than negative ones, things are clearly not the same as they were before.

Appreciation is something that grounds you positively. When things don’t seem to be working out, there is always someone or something to be grateful for around you, just as there is always something to complain about, there is also always something to be grateful for. 

It's simply a matter of choosing which side you want to find yourself on. So, I ask you EGHS, which side will you choose?  Can you find at least one person a day to appreciate using the hashtag #EGHSmatters?  I know you can. And then you will find two, and three and more.  And every message will be a contribution to our culture and your own happiness going forward.

I will always choose appreciating those who surround me.  

Because I believe with every part of me that unequivocally, that @EGHSmatters.

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