In high school I signed up for a class called Leadership – well, I wouldn’t say I “signed up” so much as I “applied.” This wasn’t simply an elective anyone could take. It was specifically for juniors and seniors who demonstrated exemplary leadership in school or community activities. Interested students had to submit an application and write an essay explaining why they deserved to be in the class.
Only about thirty students were chosen each year, and I honestly didn’t think I had a chance. I thought it was mostly just a popularity contest for kids involved in sports and student council, and I was neither popular nor involved. I also didn’t see myself as much of a leader at the time, but I applied anyway at the behest of a friend, using my church volunteer experience to shore up my essay. And, much to my surprise, I was accepted into the Leadership class my senior year.
Leadership was taught by the “Oprah” of teachers. Her name was Mrs. Parks and I’ll never forget her simultaneously cheery and forthright demeanor. She taught us how to be leaders, not just through her own words and actions, but also by her expectations. She expected us to be different, to rise above the status quo both inside and outside of school. She would sit with us on the floor in a big round circle as we discussed leadership through a lens of kindness and inclusion.
Mrs. Parks was also the only teacher I’ve ever known to incorporate guided meditations and gratitude practices into her curriculum. Quite literally, there were days when we would spend the entire class lying on the floor listening to guided meditations on CD because meditation apps didn’t exist even twelve years ago. And, everyday, we would start the class with gratitude. Everyday, every student in Mrs. Parks’ Leadership class had to make a short list of things they were grateful for, then she would choose a few students to share their lists with the class. Starting the class this way set the tone for each day and, maybe, for the rest of her students’ lives.
This was my first experience with a gratitude practice.
Nowadays, it seem like gratitude practices are part of every personal development program on the market. You can’t read a personal development book or blog without some mention of gratitude, and it seems like every influencer on social media has something to say about it, too. So it begs the question, can gratitude actually benefit your personal development?
It’s easy to surmise that having a grateful heart can make a person feel more positive, more content, and happier. Just try it! Really, stop what you’re doing right now and write down or say out loud five things for which you are truly grateful. Ready…go!
Ok, how do you feel? A little warmer? A little more content? Most likely you feel some small positive effect after making that list, even if it’s fractional. Now, if you think of doing that once a day or even a few times a day over a longer period of time, you might see how these fractional effects could change your overall attitude or outlook on life.
But personal development is more than just mental and emotional – it also involves our relationships, our physical health, and even our careers. When asking if gratitude can actually benefit our personal development, what we are really asking is this:
Can gratitude change more than just your attitude?
The good news is, it absolutely can! And I know first hand. I’m in a real life marriage, which means I have plenty of opportunities to be absolutely in love with my husband while being absolutely frustrated with him at the exact same time. Being in a real life marriage also means I have plenty of opportunities to practice gratitude.
Last year, there was one particular week where I found myself constantly frustrated with my husband; and as much as I wish I could tell you why because it would make for a better story, I honestly don’t remember why, now. But what I do remember is deciding to try gratitude. I decided that every time I would start to feel frustrated with my husband, I would force myself to come up with five different reasons to be grateful for him instead. And I made myself do this gratitude practice for one whole week without repeating the same reasons twice.
Honestly, that one week enhanced my entire perspective on gratitude. It was no longer a theory I had learned in high school. I had lived the practice as an adult and became a true believer. By the end of the week my frustrations had not only vanished (along with my memory of why I was frustrated to begin with), but my desire to be frustrated with my husband had vanished as well. I actually felt more in love with my husband at the end of the week.
What I’ve realized is sometimes the reason we get frustrated with others is because we like the feeling of being frustrated. It feels oddly satisfying to point the finger at all of the things someone else is doing wrong. It offloads any personal responsibility on our part, which is selfish. But that’s why gratitude is so effective. Gratitude lessens our self-centeredness by forcing us to look beyond ourselves, not for a scapegoat, but to appreciate all that we have despite our own or someone else’s behavior.
Amie M. Gordon, Ph.D., found in her research that gratitude increases commitment in relationships. “We found this to be true in a number of studies – on days when people feel more appreciative of their partners than typical, they also report increased feelings of commitment to their relationships.” So, it makes sense that after my week of gratitude, I felt more in love with my husband.
And this increased commitment seems to hold true in other areas of our lives as well. One study showed gratitude in the workplace increases job satisfaction, while another study showed gratitude positively correlates with our tendencies to engage in physical activities and seek help for medical concerns. Basically, when we increase gratitude, we increase our commitment to our own personal development.
It is important to note, however, reading a study is one thing; experiencing it for yourself is another. I can truly say from experience that practicing gratitude has helped me in the most meaningful ways – from building personal relationships to fighting depression to not letting materialism get the best of me. And I’m grateful (no pun intended) that I got an early start on learning its value in Mrs. Parks’ Leadership class. But if you didn’t have a Mrs. Parks in your life early on – if you’re just now learning about gratitude as a practice – it’s never too late to give it a try. The world is always in need of one more grateful heart.
If you’re looking for more daily practices you can implement in your life to aid in your personal development, I’ve got just the thing! Subscribe to The BlossomWriter Insider and I’ll send you a free list of 30 activities to help you start blossoming today!