Why are these teenagers smiling? Because they know there is much to smile about.

Why are these teenagers smiling? Because they know there is much to smile about.

By Kari Weber

Emotional intelligence and the practice of mindfulness received significant attention recently, including the front page of the February issue of Time magazine. Locally, Santa Barbara High School instituted Restorative Justice Practice, a form of alternative discipline that promotes a school culture prioritizing problem resolution over punishment.  The practice has reduced expulsions and resulted in greater school connectedness, according to teachers, administrators, and students.

Typically, emotional intelligence is seen as a “soft skill,” historically undervalued in schools and the workplace.  But attitudes are changing as more studies show benefits to overall health, sense of well being, creativity, and productivity.  As the fast pace of the digital world leaves people feeling disconnected and anxious, many are seizing opportunities to connect with people in real time, and seek opportunities during the day to quiet the mind and restore a sense of focus and balance.

REACH students are not only grateful for breakfast, but for their peers who prepared it.

REACH students are not only grateful for the meal, but for their peers who prepared it.

Simple strategies to increase emotional intelligence can be adopted in daily life.  For example, a “gratitude practice” requires only a few moments each day to reflect on anything for which one might be thankful.  One group of studies suggests that people who practice gratitude appear to be more optimistic, pleased with their lives, and connected to others when compared to those who reflect on daily hassles or on everyday events.Another study suggests that gratitude in teens is linked to feeling good about life, being optimistic, and having a good social network.

Interestingly, benefits do not appear to be content driven. It is the practice/habit of gratitude that improves one’s life. Saying, writing or thinking “I’m grateful for the beautiful sunrise” or “I’m thankful for the new One Direction song” can offer the same benefits. The gratitude does not have to be deeply meaningful; rather, the idea is to simply change a habit of thinking to view life from a place of abundance instead of deficiency. Earlier generations understood this as “counting one’s blessings,” but may not have understood the health benefits of such habits.

Author and University of Houston researcher Brene Brown reports the link between joy and gratitude. In her book, The Gifts Of Imperfection, she notes, “Without exception, every person I interviewed who described living a joyful life or who described themselves as joyful, actively practiced gratitude and attributed their joyfulness to their gratitude practice.”

Grateful for a helping hand, and grateful to be able to extend a helpful hand.

Grateful for a helping hand, and grateful to be able to extend a helpful hand.

In the REACH program emotional intelligence is woven into the culture of activities.  REACH students use gratitude as a common practice in a number of ways.  At the beginning of an event students are asked to share something from their personal lives over the last day, week or month for which they are grateful.  Expressing gratitude at the beginning of an event sets the mood in an optimistic direction and instills positivity into the day’s events.

REACH students also practice the offering of appreciation to outside presenters or partners.  At the close of a session, students share what they appreciated about the presenter – what inspired them. At first the students were apprehensive when asked to offer near strangers verbal and direct appreciations, but they quickly adopted the practice and benefits could be seen in a sense of pride and pleasure in both parties.

These “feel good” moments of gratitude are more than just fluffy coating to a day’s learning, but can create new neural-pathways to positivity for students.  This new way of thinking builds greater resiliency in the face of adversity.

For further information on mindfulness and gratitude:




Kari Weber is a Program Manager with the Orfalea Foundation REACH program.

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About Transition to Adulthood

REACH is an experiential education program for motivated high school students from California’s Santa Barbara County that prepares them to take control of their future. REACH (which stands for Resilience, Education, Adventure, Community and Health) works to prepare students for lives of purposeful action, continuous learning, and the courageous pursuit of opportunity. READ MORE

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