October 27, 2021

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What Are You Grateful For?

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Students in U.S. high schools can get free digital access to The New York Times until Sept. 1, 2021.

Note: This is the last Student Opinion prompt for the 2020-21 school year. Our regular features will resume in September.

Take a moment to reflect on the things, big and small, for which you are grateful. Whether it’s friends and family, community or faith, or moments like watching a sunset, walking alone in the woods, cozying up with a book, or enjoying a meal with someone you haven’t seen in a long time, who and what are the people, places and things you appreciate and treasure? The things that bring you comfort, security or joy?

Do you think you take enough time in your life to express your gratitude? To appreciate the wonder and joy of the world around you?

As part of the Well section’s 10-day Fresh Start Challenge, Tara Parker-Pope writes in “Day 8: Take a Gratitude Photo” about the importance of cultivating and expressing gratitude. First, she lays out the challenge to Times readers:

The Challenge

Take a fresh look at the people, places and things in your life. Now snap a photo. It could be a building you haven’t noticed before, a tree in your yard, children playing or your pet. Fill out the form below to share your pictures with us!

Then, Ms. Parker-Pope provides a rationale for the challenge as a part of a larger effort to reset our mental, physical and emotional health as the country begins to reopen from the pandemic:

Why Am I Doing This?

When people talk about life after the pandemic, they often say they’ll never take the small things in life for granted again — going into the office, meeting friends for dinner or just getting a haircut.

So how do you keep from sliding back into complacency? A few studies offer simple ways to keep appreciating the world around you.

When we make an effort to notice our surroundings or show appreciation for the people, places or things that make us happy, it’s called “savoring.” Scientists know that savoring exercises can lead to meaningful gains in overall happiness and well-being.

One small study found that mindful photography can be a fun and easy way to savor everyday experiences and cultivate gratitude. For the research, college students were instructed to take photos of things that brought them joy or felt meaningful to them. They were also told not to rush and to put some thought into the project. During the study, the students used their phone cameras to take pictures of campus buildings, blooming flowers, friends hanging out in the quad or objects in their dorm rooms.

Overall, the students who took mindful photographs felt happier and more appreciative of college life compared to a control group that took photos of uninspiring things like bike racks. And the researchers found that mindful photography worked just as well at improving wellbeing as a traditional gratitude journal practice.

“We have cameras with us all the time, and we often take pictures habitually without a whole lot of intention,” said Jaime Kurtz, professor of psychology at James Madison University who conducted the research. “Mindful photography is about slowing down. It’s not just snapping mindless photos. It’s keeping an eye out for something that is beautiful or meaningful to you.”

The article continues:

Similar research has focused on cultivating feelings of awe by mindfully noticing a bigger world around you, like a breathtaking sunset or a picturesque landscape. While it can be difficult to define “awe,” the emotion is generally described as feeling you are in the presence of something larger and more consequential than yourself. It’s the feeling you get when you see the Grand Canyon or trees covered in fresh cherry blossoms. Studies show that when people regularly cultivate a sense of awe, they have lower levels of inflammation and stress, healthier heart rates, higher levels of social well-being and stronger feelings of connection with others.

While early research into awe focused on exceptional experiences, like going white-water rafting, more recent studies have shown that people can cultivate awe on a daily walk in their local surroundings. In a recent study, 52 volunteers were asked to take 15-minute walks. Half of them weren’t given any guidance. But the other group was told to cultivate awe by walking in places they’d never seen before and taking a fresh look at surroundings they might have taken for granted in the past.

Overall, the awe walkers felt happier, less upset and more socially connected than those in the control group.

Students, read the entire article and then tell us:

  • What are you grateful for? Challenge yourself to make as long a list as you can. Has the pandemic helped you appreciate the people, places and things around you more?

  • Do you sometimes find it hard to be grateful? Why? Have the challenges and difficulties of 2021 made it easier or harder for you to experience and express gratitude?

  • Ms. Parker-Pope emphasizes the importance of “savoring,” which she explains as “when we make an effort to notice our surroundings or show appreciation for the people, places or things that make us happy.” Do you savor everyday experiences? How do you cultivate and show gratitude in your daily life? Through words? Prayer? Meditation? Journaling? Awe walks? What does it feel like when you articulate the things you’re grateful for?

  • Ms. Parker-Pope writes that “Studies show that people who practice gratitude get better sleep and have higher levels of happiness, fewer health problems and less depression.” Does that ring true for your own experiences? Do you think you will try to cultivate and express gratitude more fully now? Do you think mindful photography and the gratitude photo challenge might be a fun and effective way to savor the moment?

  • Look over your list of things that you are grateful for from above: If you were to photograph one thing from the list, what would it be and why? Now go and snap that photo! And if inspired, submit it to The Times.

About Student Opinion

Find all of our Student Opinion questions in this column.
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Students 13 and older in the United States and the United Kingdom, and 16 and older elsewhere, are invited to comment. All comments are moderated by the Learning Network staff, but please keep in mind that once your comment is accepted, it will be made public.

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