The Harbour School

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What Good is Gratitude?

  • 2021
  • Leadership
Dan Blurton, THS Managing Director

Children are traditionally taught the history of Thanksgiving through learning about the very first Thanksgiving - a harvest feast in October, 1621 between the Pilgrims (a group of English settlers) and the Wampanoag tribe (a Native American people). While there is evidence that this banquet, held in good will, actually occurred, the gratitude narrative has, however, increasingly become overshadowed by subsequent Native American and settler relations and events.

Nevertheless, for those looking for reasons to keep the holiday alive, it is worth moving further down the historical timeline to October, 1863, where at the height of the civil war, Abraham Lincoln proclaimed a national day of giving thanks and praise. Thanks-giving days had been declared before Lincoln, both at the state and national level. But since this was the first in what became the annual practice of thanksgiving, Lincoln's declaration is often considered the beginning of the holiday. (As an interesting aside, Jefferson’s oft-quoted “wall between church and state” phrase came about because he did not want to declare a day of thanksgiving). Lincoln was persuaded into making his Thanksgiving proclamation by Sara Josepha Hale, the editor of Boston's Ladies' Magazine, who spent decades petitioning for an annual, national, Thanksgiving holiday. Hale, writing just before the war, felt that Thanksgiving would encourage the “moral and social reunion of Americans.”

What is fascinating about this historical episode about “thanks and praise” is the fact that it occurred before our modern understanding of giving thanks and its social and individual benefits which we more often refer to as practicing gratitude.

Gratitude is what today’s social scientists refer to as a “prosocial behavior.” In simple terms, it is a behavior that benefits others and that, when practiced collectively, creates virtuous ripples in society. In school communities, for example, prosocial behaviors appear to be robustly related to student motivation to learn, general health, feelings of wellbeing, and even standardized test scores.

In addition to the social benefits, research from the last half century has also shown that a small gratitude practice – one to five minutes per day – has powerful and far reaching personal benefits: everything from improved mental wellbeing, to better health, to more vivid experiences, to more restful sleep, to fuller relationships, to reduced anxiety and more.

At THS, gratitude is taught in the school’s Health curriculum and in the high school Wellness Advisory block. We also have a staff chat channel specifically for giving thanks and praise to others. We call this channel “kudos” and every member of staff has access by default. It is multi-directional (anyone can thank and praise anyone) and semi-public (so that we’re reminded as a community of this prosocial behavior). From a quick scan, about 30 messages were sent through this channel in November – and because of the ripples, who knows how many more offline*.

With Thanksgiving in the past, Omicron on the horizon, and the world as much in need of reunion as when Sara Hale was petitioning, it may not seem like there is much to give thanks for at this moment. It’s also easy to begin to believe that the reasons to give thanks and praise are for the personal benefits listed above. Hence, it is a lucky coincidence that the benefits of gratitude line up nicely with what Hale and others celebrated about the first Thanksgiving, and which we would teach and practice regardless - good will.

*(If you feel like participating, any positive feedback - by email to admin or through our Praise and Feedback form - gets posted to our kudos channel with family identifying information removed.)

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