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Cultivating an Attitude of Gratitude Beyond Thanksgiving

By Leah Teague


“Gratitude is not only the greatest of virtues,
but the parent of all others.”

– Cicero


Some practice a Thanksgiving tradition in which they share something (or someone) for which they are thankful. As we focus on well-being and celebrate Thanksgiving next week, it seems fitting to focus on the benefits of practicing gratitude. Rather than relegating thankfulness or gratitude to once a year, studies show tremendous benefits to practicing gratitude as part of our daily routine.

A gratitude practice may be especially beneficial for students experiencing the stress of law school. Students naively believe that life will magically be better/easier after law school, but we know such is not the case. The practice of law, and life, can grind up and wear down the best of us. Gratitude positively effects the well-being of both the person showing appreciation and the receiver.

This week before Thanksgiving is a perfect time to encourage our students, as well as our colleagues and loved ones, to practice gratitude regularly and offer suggestions on incorporating a gratitude practice.

Benefits of Gratefulness

The value of a gratitude practice is well established. In The Secret to Happiness (Part 2) – Gratitude, a blog post for the Massachusetts Lawyer Assistance Program, Dr. Shawn Healy noted:

Gratitude helps you put things in perspective. Specifically, it helps prevent your view of your situation from becoming overly negative. We have a tendency to see our situations in reference to the predominate emotional evaluation we experience. In other words, if our day seems more than 50% negative, we experience our entire day as negative. Likewise, if our day seems more than 50% positive, we have a better chance of experiencing our day as positive. Since everyday has both positive and negative aspects, it all depends on what you focus on. A day with one significant negative event can taint the entire day if that negative event is the focus on our attention.

Gratitude has a physiologic effect on us, and the benefits can be demonstrated scientifically, as Travis Whitsitt noted in a recent blog post, The Value of A Gratitude Practice for Lawyers and Law Students (And Tips For Starting One):

The regular practice of gratitude has been shown to decrease the body’s stress response, which in turn boosts immune performance. Studies have suggested it lowers the risk of heart disease, and studies consistently demonstrate that it reduces the symptoms of anxiety and depression while linking it to an overall improved mood. It can also improve relationships, both romantic and otherwise, with studies showing that partners who demonstrate gratitude toward each other experience improved happiness and relationship satisfaction. Studies also demonstrate that optimistic people suffer less from the negative effects of aging, and a gratitude practice has actually been shown to shift one’s outlook toward optimism when employed over time. In a profession rife with stress, anxiety, depression, and burnout, the above benefits sound pretty good to me.

Make the Easy Choice

From the repository of the “Pendleton Judicial Training Updates,” Retired Judge Pendleton from Minnesota reminds lawyers that we have an easy choice each day “between two possible daily mindsets:

1. A mindset where you are grateful for the opportunity to excel in a challenging field and happy just to be involved, or

2. A mindset of struggling and griping about every inch of gained ground, never satisfied with the outcome.

When you read those two choices, no one would consciously pick the second one. Yet when the bell rings and your day begins, many attorneys (and judges) allow themselves to revert to an adversarial mental state (choice #2). Besides the negative affect on the quality of your own life, a non-grateful daily attitude also has a profound impact on how you are perceived by others, including your friends and colleagues. Of course, most of you already know which local attorneys and judges fall into that second category. Don’t be one of them.”

Gratitude Exercise

We offer this gratitude exercise in Chapter 11 of the Teacher’s Manual for Fundamentals of Lawyer Leadership:

Gratitude Wall

Gratitude exercises allow for reflection on influential people and the milestones they made possible. A gratitude wall will enable students to show their recognition in a public way. The instructions for this exercise are simple. Have the students take 1-3 post-it notes and write down one thing they are grateful for on the note. Then have the students or lawyers place the post-it notes on the wall of the classroom or meeting room or a large poster board.

A variation on the gratitude wall is gratitude cards. For these, pass out note cards and have them write down one thing they are grateful for on each card and review these cards every day. In a following class or meeting, discuss how this exercise impacted their daily lives.

“When it comes to life, the critical thing is whether you take things for granted or take them with gratitude.” -G.K. Chesterton

We wish you a happy and healthy Thanksgiving!

– LEAH