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The student news of St. Paul Academy and Summit School

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The science of gratitude

Learn about how gratitude can affect one’s mood and the science behind it.
What are our upper school counselors grateful for?
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Eliana Mann: Hi, I’m Eliana Mann, and in this podcast, I’m going to explore the science of gratitude with the upper school counselors, Heidi Lohman and Josie Zuniga. Practicing gratitude is truly good for you and can have positive effects on both mental and physical health. With Thanksgiving right around the corner, thankfulness is something on everyone’s mind, but it plays a key role in living a happy life all year round. Lohman and Zuniga have much more insight to offer about gratitude, so now, onto our discussion.

Heidi Lohman: I’m Heidi Lohman, I use she/her pronouns, and I’m the upper school counselor.

Josie Zuniga: My name is Josie Zuniga, I go by she/her pronouns, and I am one of the upper school counselors. I work with ninth and eleventh-graders mostly.

Mann: Awesome, okay, my first question is how would you define gratitude?

Lohman: That is actually not a question that feels easy to answer, because I think there’s a big debate on, like, how to define it. But essentially, gratitude to me, like my own definition, is finding happiness or finding joy in things that are given to you by other people, or like it’s a, it’s very much a community, it’s like… you can’t find gratitude without the help of other people. And so, it’s kind of something that you can look at and appreciate, and find value and joy and happiness in.

Zuniga: That’s a really good question. Gratitude are those things in our lives that bring us joy, that we are grateful for, right, it’s in the name, and that are meaningful to us.

Mann: What happens in our brains when we are feeling grateful or practicing gratitude?

Lohman: Yeah, that’s a really, it’s really interesting because if you have like a consistent gratitude practice, it can really have some long-term impacts on your brain, and can really influence how your brain perceives the world around you. So, what’s happening when you feel grateful for something, you’re finding like a sense of purpose or joy or something that brings you happiness, and what that does is it releases, like, you know, two hormones: one is dopamine and the other one is serotonin. Dopamine is kind of that, like we call it, like, the feel-good hormone. It usually is connected to, like, romantic relationships, so it makes you feel good, it makes you feel connected to people around you, or connected to the environment around you. And serotonin is like, kind of considered like the happy, you know, like, you know, compound of your brain, so it makes you feel good and it makes you feel happy. And the more you practice gratitude, the, like, stronger those neurotransmitters become, and so if you have like a practice of gratitude that’s consistent and long-term, those transmitters are actually strengthened and more solidified in your brain, and so those feelings of happiness and connectedness last longer even when the feelings of gratitude go away.

Mann: So kind of in a similar vein, what are the physical and mental health benefits of practicing gratitude?

Lohman: So, when you feel happy, and when you feel connected and supported by, like, the people and environment around you, it helps you reduce your stress, it helps you be more aware of the positives and the things that are going well in your life, which makes it more difficult to ruminate on the more difficult things, it helps you sleep better, it strengthens relationships. And all of those, and like the, you know the number one thing that contributes to happiness and longevity is the connection that people have with each other, so you need other people in your life, like really positive connections, and being in a happier, more joyful state allows you to build up connections, and, like, build up meaningful relationships with other people. And also, like, acknowledging other people is something, like, that will make them happy as well, and so it’s like, it’s like you can transfer your gratitude onto other people. So it strengthens relationships, it reduces stress, physically it, like, helps with your sleep, which is gonna, like, change your life if you’re not getting a lot of sleep. There’s a lot of benefits.

Mann: So you spoke a little bit about how gratitude impacts our relationships with other people; how does it impact our relationship to ourselves?

Zuniga: I really like this question, because I feel like oftentimes when we practice gratitude, we think about the things around us and the people around us, but we often forget what we’re grateful for about ourselves, right? Yeah, so it can, I will admit it’s hard to remember to do that because we are our worst critic, but in doing that, we learn to not only like ourselves, but love ourselves, and realize the positive impact that we have in the world and the people around us.

Lohman: It brings a sense of calm to yourself, and I think it gives you the ability, so like I’m speaking for just kind of like my interpretation, and less about the science of it, I think it gives you a sense of calm and a sense of purpose. It gives you, like when you’re feeling calm and able to not be focusing on the negative things, that changes your perspective of how you move through the day, and it helps you appreciate and recognize, like, the small things around you, that maybe would go missed if you weren’t practicing gratitude or if you weren’t, like, if you didn’t have a practice that helped you become aware of those things. So I think it just builds up your own confidence and your ability to regulate your emotions.

Mann: What effect does gratitude have on mood?

Lohman: It improves your mood. It is impossible to be in a negative space when you’re practicing gratitude. So, like when I teach the Wellness classes, can I, like, go through an example?

Mann: Yeah.

Lohman: We talk about stress and how that impacts your body and impacts your brain and your health, and one, like, really quick way to just, like, reduce stress or to increase your stress tolerance is to do a little happy, like a little gratitude exercise where we spend four minutes—that’s it—in a place of gratitude where we’re writing gratitude, things that we’re grateful for, things that we enjoy, and then we spend the next minute sharing those out loud, not in a dialogue, but just saying them out loud. And being in that space, you can see the mood of the whole class, every quarter that I’ve done this or every, like, class that I’ve done this with, everybody is laughing and smiling at the end of it because when you’re getting those dopamine and serotonin hits, those overpower, like, the negative, lethargic feeling that you might have in your brain. So it’s, it improves your mood immediately, and the more you practice it, the longer that improvement will last.

Mann: Is gratitude something that will ever be, like, medically recommended as, like, a way to treat mental health issues or things like that?

Lohman: I hope so. There is this study that I was just, I love gratitudes, like when I got your email to, like, want to talk about it, I was like, this is amazing. There is this study that was done where in therapy sessions, people were asked to write letters of gratitude to people in their life, and whether or not those were sent didn’t change, like, the impact that just writing it down had, and those people performed, had better success rates in their therapy sessions. So to me, and that was just one study, but it was a pretty, it was like, pretty telling that, like, it’s such a simple, easy, free, I mean if there was a medication that you could take and it would, like, give you a boost of, like, serotonin and dopamine in a way that, you know, wasn’t permanently changing your brain chemicals, I think that would be something people would want to buy. So yes, I can’t say for certain, but I think that there is a lot of evidence that practicing gratitude is going to have long-term effects on improving your mood.

Mann: Is gratitude something you ever utilize in your counseling sessions?

Zuniga: Absolutely, yeah, I think I utilize gratitude almost every day with the students around me. You all are really hard on yourselves, and it’s really easy just to focus on the negative, and I don’t want to diminish the negative either, because those are real things that you are all going through, but there are also good things, right? Like, there are good things about the student that I am talking about that they might forget about themself, about the people around them, about the environment, so, it can definitely help to curb some of those negative thoughts to bring in what the student is grateful for as well.

Mann: What are some of your favorite or recommended ways to practice gratitude?

Lohman: So I like to practice gratitude, or I like, when I’m working with adolescents, where time is of the essence because people can’t commit to things that take up a lot of time, there’s like three things that I recommend. One is, I would do this gratitude exercise in Wellness classes, so all tenth graders have access to this, where you just like spend two minutes, like you set a timer on your phone for two minutes, and you just either write or think about a running list of all the things you’re grateful for. And that two minutes, and if you’re doing it authentically, that two minutes is going to make a big difference. So that’s one thing. Another thing is just like quick journaling, like at the end of the day, thinking about, like, what went well that day, what things brought you joy, those are other ways to say what you’re grateful for, and just kind of ending your day or ending your night with that, like, positivity in mind. The other thing that I tell students to do is like during homework time, or if they’re studying, or if they’re feeling particularly stressed out, I say, like, when you’re at home, no matter the weather, no matter what it is like, if you change your environment, so go outside, and I call it like a gratitude walk, and it might just be, like, up and down your street where you push aside that, like, homework, or that test, or that stressful peer interaction, or whatever it is that’s causing that anxiety, and you just take a little walk and you look around and you notice things, like, notice the little things. You don’t even have to, like, use the word gratitude in that moment, but things that inspire you or like, kind of just, like, have a little spark of like, a bird, or the leaves changing, or cold air blowing on you, or rain, how it looks when it hits, like, a puddle or something, like those kinds of little noticings are a form of practicing gratitude. And if it’s just five minutes, that little exercise alone, like when you go back into your study environment, you’re going to have a new perspective, and like, your mood is going to be uplifted.

Zuniga: I like to just write down, for even a minute a day, everything that I am grateful for, big and small, like, I’m grateful for my new car that I just bought, I’m grateful for the clothes that I’m wearing, I’m grateful for, that I have access to clean water, like all of, just like, all of these, like, little things that you might often forget about yourself or about your environment. Yeah, I just like to either think about those or write those down.

Mann: Do you think it’s helpful to save those?

Zuniga: Yeah.

Mann: When you write them down?

Zuniga: Absolutely, like in those moments where it’s feeling really hard, it can be easy just to even pull out your phone and read a list of things that you are grateful for.

Mann: Thank you for joining me for this conversation about gratitude with the upper school counselors. To learn more about the science of gratitude, the Greater Good Science Center at the University of California Berkeley offers lots of excellent research on their website.

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About the Contributor
Eliana Mann
Eliana Mann, Production Manager
My name is Eliana Mann (she/her). I work as the Production Manager for The Rubicon online, and this is my fourth year on staff. At school, I’m a captain of the varsity volleyball team, and am involved in Community Action and Service, Senior Class Leadership Council, and the freshman mentoring program. I love to spend quality time with my friends and family, watch sports games, and listen to music. I can be reached at [email protected].

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