The Importance Of Gratitude by Dr Kerry Howells




The great scientist and thinker, Albert Einstein famously said that if he had one hour to solve a problem and his life depended upon it, he would spend the first fifty five minutes working out the right question.


Over the past two decades as an educator, the question that I have been passionate about answering for and with my learners is “What stops you from being awake?” An awake student is one who not only has their eyes open (although that’s a good start), but is also able to pay attention with their whole heart and mind, with a passion for what they are learning and doing.


Interestingly, in this age of distraction because of the many information technology devices and things like texting, facebook and email, it is this quality of awakeness, or what others might call attentiveness, that some researchers are now saying is going to be the quintessential quality that distinguishes those who achieve success from those who do not, and it is a quality that employers are going to be looking for more than any other. Indeed, my research has shown that there is a very important interconnection between our awakeness and our ability to learn the information that we are focusing on. So to the Year 12 students who are graduating today into further study or future employment, and the other PLC students here today, I hope that what I am about to share in these next few moments can assist you to bring this quality of awakeness to your learning and your outside activities like sport, music, work, and most importantly your friendships.


In my quest for answers to my question, I have come to discover that one of the core factors that has a negative influence on this awake state is resentment and the ensuing behaviours of complaint and dissatisfaction and perhaps blaming others for our problems or what we do not have. So when a student is full of resentment it is very difficult for them to bring this awake quality to their learning or other activities.


It was with this realisation that I came to discover the importance of gratitude. I define gratitude as the act of acknowledging what we receive from others and being motivated to give back out of this acknowledgement. Gratitude is conceptually the opposite of resentment: these two states rule each other out. Where there is resentment in our reaction to a certain phenomenon we cannot have gratitude and where there is gratitude we cannot have resentment. But it is not as simple as replacing resentment with gratitude as this would be putting a positive veneer over a situation that is crying out for attention.  We often need to take small steps out of our resentment by recognising it, expressing it in some way, such as talking directly to the person who has caused this resentment rather than speaking behind their back. Every time we move away from resentment we move closer towards gratitude and therefore closer to being more awake in our learning or other activities. So it is very helpful to often ask ourselves where we are on the gratitude-resentment spectrum as this will give us important keys to what stops us from being attentive or awake.


There are two other features of gratitude that can help us be more awake and therefore better learners. Firstly, gratitude helps us notice what we have around us, what our blessings are, and so it immediately brings us into a greater sense of attentiveness. Just looking at one of your friends and thinking about how lucky you are to have them in your life, brings your attention more fully into the present moment, doesn’t it?  Gratitude helps us move away from taking things for granted and therefore helps us be more awake, more alive.


Secondly, gratitude does not become complete without our expressing it to the other person, by showing our gratitude in action. When we express gratitude, and even thinking about how we might show our gratitude, again brings us into a greater level of attentiveness and interconnectedness with those around us.


When I was introducing this way of learning to a group of optometry students at the University of New South Wales, I invited them to approach their studies with what I call ‘A State of Preparedness’, where they are contemplating what they are grateful for before they started to study or attend a class. As many of them were stressed out by the many assignments and exams they had to prepare for, they admitted that it was very difficult for them to think of things they were grateful for, and much easier to think of things that they were resentful about – which was part of the culture, to grumble and complain. So to assist these students to move out of this state, I suggested that they practise gratitude for their own eyes and everything their eyes allowed them to see. Then they were invited to bring this state of appreciation for their eyes before they were to begin a task, and come back to it several times when they were feeling distracted. They not only reported being able to be more attentive and awake in their learning, and to enjoy it more fully, but also that even though they had been learning all this knowledge about the mechanics of the eye, they had never really thought about their own eyes and expressed gratitude for all their eyes could see.


I think this is a good example where it is not just the knowledge that we are learning that is important, but what I call the ‘inner attitude’, or character that we are bringing to our learning that makes it come alive, and brings us into this state of awakeness.


For the parents and teachers here today I want to now talk briefly about what I believe is a universal principle that is relevant to this whole process, and it is the one of “from upstream to downstream”. My research has shown that the students are able to practise gratitude more easily if it is flowing down to them from their parents and teachers.


Interestingly when I have gone around to schools to introduce the role of gratitude to the school community, it is the parents who are the ones who are most enthusiastic about being involved in this initiative. It not only appeals to those of religious faith, in allowing this to come alive in really practical ways, but also to those who come from cultures where gratitude to teachers is more of a core value. These parents welcome the opportunity to assimilate more of their natural way of being and values into the education system. The idea that they can contribute directly to their children’s learning through their own gratitude to their children and their children’s teachers and school, really appeals to them.


However, so often as parents we might be drawn into our children’s complaints about their teacher or the school, thinking that we are being supportive and placating them in some way. This might be not only misguided thinking, but also be having a direct negative impact on the child’s learning because we are, unknowingly, reinforcing their inner attitude of complaint and therefore taking away from their gratitude.


When I was working with a primary school here in Sydney, I had a case study of a group of teachers and a group of parents were practising gratitude. One of these teachers was desperately trying to engage a Year 5 girl, who seemed to have all the capabilities of a good student, but was very rebellious and distracted without any apparent reason. The teacher started to express gratitude to this student and it had some impact on her disengagement, but recognising that this was a tripartite relationship between parent, teacher and child, she approached the parent, knowing that she had joined the parents’ gratitude group. Although this parent thought it was a good idea to practise gratitude, she was finding it really difficult. I suggested that she start with practising gratitude to her own parents (one of whom was deceased so she had to do this at a heart level). This parent admitted that she held a lot of resentment towards her own parents, and it was only when she was able to feel and express gratitude to them, simply because without them she would not be alive, that her gratitude was able to flow more freely to her daughter. With the combined gratitude from parent and teacher towards this girl, she became so much more settled and less rebellious, and able to concentrate in class.


What was happening here is the French word for gratitude, which is reconnaissance, meaning ‘recognition’. When we express gratitude to someone, be it student, parent, teacher, principal, we are bringing about a certain kind of recognition that connects us to a greater sense of who we are as human beings. Margaret Visser, a wonderful social anthropologist who has written a lot about the role of gratitude in our daily life, has shown that this ability to bring about reconnaissance by recognising another through gratitude, is fundamental to our sense of belonging, identity and relationships. Importantly, she argues that we cannot give ourselves this kind of recognition: it needs to be given to us by others.


This argument supports my findings in another case study where I introduced the role of gratitude to teachers in a very challenging district high school in regional Western Australia. Even though they practised gratitude in a variety of different ways as part of this project, it was the act of greeting their students with a genuine heart of gratitude that had the biggest impact on their students and their classroom environment. They were bringing about reconnaissance, recognition, through this simple act of greeting with a heart of gratitude.


So I believe that Cicero got it right when he said that gratitude is the parent of all virtues. As you can gather from some of these examples, to genuinely express gratitude, we need to also bring our humility, forgiveness, acceptance, non-judgement. When we think about changing our character so that we can bring more awakeness to our learning or teaching or parenting, we can tend to feel overwhelmed. But what my research has shown is that when we just focus on this one beautiful virtue of gratitude, there is enormous power because we are automatically awakening so many other virtues.

But this is not to say that what I am suggesting here is straightforward or doesn’t come without enormous complexities, and indeed I’ve written a whole book that engages with the dilemmas and challenges that teachers, parents and students have found, called Gratitude in Education: A Radical View. But my research has also shown very clearly that gratitude so central to effective teaching and learning that it is worth persevering and holding onto gratitude despite these challenges.


Returning to Einstein and the power of the question, I believe that we can answer the question of “What stops us from being awake in our learning?” with another question “To whom can we express our gratitude, our thanks, for all that we receive in being able to learn?”


On this speech day, I congratulate you all on what you have achieved, and I know that you are all very awake today because it is a day of remembering and celebrating those to whom you owe your gratitude for your success.




If you enjoyed this article you may be interested in visiting the following link to see Kerry’s TED talk


Kerry will be presenting a keynote address on the important of gratitude in schools at the Positive Schools 2015 conferences (


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