Teaching Gratitude and Thanksgiving in Your Course

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Joshua Hook is a Psychology Professor at the University of North Texas.


We are nearing Thanksgiving, which is my favorite holiday. I love all the traditions—the food, getting together with family, watching football and decorating for Christmas. One of the traditions my family has is we each go around the table and share what we’re thankful for. We share our gratitude—and here, you’ll find tips for teaching gratitude to your students.


Benefits of Gratitude

It’s interesting, we know from research that gratitude has a strong relationship with positive mental health and well-being. However, many of us struggle with gratitude. If we aren’t careful, we tend to focus on the negative and forget about the good things that are happening in our lives.


Gratitude is Difficult

Even as a researcher who studies Positive Psychology, I’m as guilty of this as anyone. My natural tendency is to focus on the things that are going “wrong” in my life. For example, I get frustrated about COVID-19. I feel stressed about the election and the division in our country. I feel worn out when my daughter isn’t sleeping through the night. And so on.


We Tend to Focus on the Negative

I think our tendency to focus on the negative has its roots in evolution. Long ago, we had to notice the negative things in our environment, because our survival depended on it. If we didn’t notice the predator hiding in the bushes, we might be dead. Nowadays, our world isn’t as dangerous, but our minds haven’t adapted. We still zero in on the negative, even though it makes us unhappy.


How to Instill Gratitude Habits

It’s possible to counteract our tendency to focus on the negative, but we have to be intentional about it. I’ve shared a few examples of gratitude exercises and questions to reflect on:

4 Gratitude Exercises

  1. Gratitude Journal. Each morning, write down three things you are grateful for. Spend a few minutes reflecting on the three things before starting your day.
  2. Write a Gratitude Letter. Write a letter of gratitude to someone you haven’t properly thanked. Then mail the letter to them.
  3. A Gratitude Apple a Day. This is a twist on the gratitude journal. Each morning, write down one thing you are thankful for. The twist is that each morning, you can’t repeat something from a previous day. Try to write down one unique thing each day for a month.
  4. Grateful for the Tough Things. Think about one thing that happened this year that was difficult for you. Try to come up with at least one good thing that happened for you in the midst of the challenge.


Discussion Questions

  1. What is one thing you are grateful for? Share what you are grateful for with your neighbor.
  2. 2020 has been a tough year for many of us. Is it possible to be grateful even when things are hard?


It isn’t enough just to “feel grateful,” we have to develop gratitude habits that consistently pull our attention towards the good things in our lives. This Thanksgiving, I hope you and your students can take a moment to focus on yours.


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