Partner School Stories

The New Science of Gratitude

By Joe McDonough

For the next two weeks, schools across the nation will devote time to learning about gratitude.  The time of year could not be better.  Thanksgiving is around the corner and people young and old will be asked to consider what they are thankful for.  This idea of giving thanks fits in perfectly with gratitude, but it does not completely capture what it is to be grateful.  As we move into our two week series of gratitude lessons, let’s take a deeper look into the new science of gratitude, particularly as it relates to our collective work in schools.

In order to begin to understand recent findings concerning gratitude, one should first look to positive psychology.  Many scholars trace the academic history of gratitude back to positive psychology and the research conducted in that field.  Positive psychology places an emphasis on what is right rather than what is wrong in both individuals and organizations.  Hoy (2011) defined positive psychology as “the study of ordinary human strengths and what goes right in life.  Its interest is in discovering what works, what is right, and what is improving, not what fails, what is wrong, and what is declining” (p. 428).  The study of gratitude and gratitude interventions emerged from this field.

The basic premise of the study of gratitude is that cultivating a positive perspective and focusing on what one can be grateful for has positive outcomes in life.  In considering recent studies connected to gratitude interventions, Wood, Froh, & Geraghty (2010) suggested that “gratitude is part of a wider life orientation towards noticing and appreciating the positive in the world” (p. 891).  Morgan, Gulliford, & Carr (2015) found the benefits of gratitude include increases in subjective well-being and life satisfaction, better interpersonal relationships, and increases in pro-social behavior.  Wood et al. (2010) summarized findings from recent gratitude studies and concluded that gratitude strengthened relationships and may impact conflict resolution and increase reciprocally helpful behavior.  Given the discovered impacts of gratitude on relationship building, one can imagine how gratitude could play a positive role in schools.  These results point to gratitude as a mindset more than an action.  Gratitude becomes how we see the world, not just how we give thanks for what we see.

One of the most prolific researchers and writers in terms of linking gratitude research and schools is David Chan. In terms of gratitude research in schools, David Chan (2010, 2011, 2012, 2013) has studied the effects of gratitude interventions on teachers and students as well as explored life satisfaction and gratitude’s role in preventing teacher burn-out, among other topics. As an example, in studying the effects of gratitude interventions among teachers, Chan (2011) found that “more grateful teachers were more likely to experience life satisfaction, and less likely to experience depersonalization or alienation from others” (p. 820). Time after time the outcomes from gratitude studies embody positive characteristics that any school would desire for its faculty, staff, and students.

In your P2 Partner Schools Materials, you will find resources for a gratitude journal.  This journal is based on a simple, research-based gratitude exercise called Three Good Things (a quick Google search will lead you to lots of information).  As we move into the Thanksgiving season and work with our students on the character strength of gratitude, try this exercise as a way of pushing your students beyond simply saying thank you.  Use this time to discover gratitude as a mindset.

Joe McDonough
Principal, J.M. McKenney Middle School

Joe McDonough is the principal of J.M. McKenney Middle School in Canton, NY. He has researched and written about the implications of teachers’ experiences of gratitude for school leadership.  He is currently interested in the role perception plays in defining teachers’ experiences within their schools and how these differing experiences may affect school climate and culture.