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The One Big Thing I Learned About Teaching A Classful of Teenagers About Gratitude.

Research on the emotion of gratitude shows a host of benefits for mind and body for teens and adults.
This will be my second year as a Voluntary Youth Educator for the Crisis Centre in Vancouver, BC. I have delivered scores of individual mindfulness workshops and now most recently a 6 week mindfulness program developed by Mindful Schools. I typically work with Grades 8s and 9s in the Vancouver School system and have taught hundreds of students in dozens of schools all around Vancouver.
Today I finish a 6 week program I have been teaching at Eric Hamber Secondary here in Vancouver, BC. Eric Hamber is a wonderful school and I feel privelidged that the teachers and students have been working with me twice a week for 6 weeks. This is the second six week program I have facilitated. The first 6 week program was for Vancouver Technical School. As part of the curriculum I do two sessions a week lasting 20 minutes each.
The goal is to give the students skills that aid their social and emotional learning with the intention of improving their learning outcomes, as well as their social interactions with their peers. We stay light on theory and instead use a wide range of experiental, yet simple, practices, so that students can feel the benefits and effects in their own body and mind.
Today we finished our session with a simple gratitude practice. This is simple yet powerful mindfulness practice that helps students bring attention to the positive aspects of their lives and experience-that might ordinarily go unnoticed. 
I highlight that this practice is useful when negative thoughts, emotions and experiences start to crowd out the positive aspects of a person's experience. Restoring attention and awareness for the small or big things we can be grateful for creates positive emotions. 

Scientific research on the effects of gratitude already shows that people who practice gratitude consistently report a host of benefits:

  • Stronger immune systems and lower blood pressure;
  • Higher levels of positive emotions;
  • More joy, optimism, and happiness;
  • Acting with more generosity and compassion;
  • Feeling less lonely and isolated.
It's easy perhaps to dismiss gratitude as simple, obvious, and unworthy of serious attention. But the intentional practice of gratitude can become part of one's wider 'emotional immune system' against feeling negative emotions like self pity, resentment, hopelessness or fear or even self-judgement.
The beauty of this simple exercise is that a lot of the students report "feeling good" when they do it. When asked why they feel good, I discover that it is not so much the obvious, external qualities of the thing itself but the quality of the relationship to that "thing". Most of the things people feel grateful for, that stir positive emotion, are relationships to things like a pet, a favorite place, family or friends. At the heart of the "things" we feel grateful for is a relationship often revealed by words such as "it allows me..", "it gives me..", "it makes me feel...". 
Ultimately, the students remind me that gratitude - and the positive emotion that accompanies it - is not about the big, bright things we hope to have in the future, but often in the small unseen moments of relationship to the things that are with us now.