Can Radical Gratitude Actually Enhance Your Mind's Ability to Learn?

How would your life be different if you made a commitment to genuine gratitude? This month we’ll explore the mental, academic, physical, and spiritual benefits of cultivating an attitude of gratitude.

Ever heard of radical gratitude? It’s the ability to express gratitude and be thankful even in life’s worst circumstances. Can practicing it change our ability to learn?

Ever heard of radical gratitude? It's the ability to express gratitude and be thankful even in life's worst circumstances. Can practicing it change our ability to learn? #radicalgratitude #gratitude #thankfulness #Thanksgiving #growthmindset #cancer #caregiving #attitude #lifelonglearning #trauma

Radical Gratitude

“What’s the worst thing that’s ever happened to you, Mrs. Ojeda?” one of my students asked.

I didn’t even hesitate. “When Mr. Ojeda had cancer and almost died multiple times.”

“I didn’t know he almost died,” another student said. “He’s so crazy healthy now! When we go mountain biking, I can’t keep up with him.”

“What’s the best thing that’s ever happened to you,” the first student asked.

Once again, I didn’t hesitate. “When Mr. Ojeda had cancer and almost died multiple times.”

“What?” Exclamations burst out all over the classroom. I waited for it to quiet down.

“That’s crazy,” I heard someone mutter.

“I know it sounds crazy,” I agreed. “But that horrible, dark, hard experience taught both of us some really important lessons. Lessons that make both of us better people today. Without learning those lessons, we never would have ended up here. God can use our terrible, no good, very bad circumstances in ways we never expected. Especially if we practice radical gratitude.”

“What’s radical gratitude?” the first student asked.

“When you look for and express gratitude for things even in the middle of horrible circumstances. That’s radical gratitude.”

“C’mon, Mrs. Ojeda,” another student said with disbelief, “what in the world did you find to be grateful for when Mr. Ojeda had cancer? You didn’t want him to die, did you?”

The class laughed, and I chuckled along with them. “No, I didn’t want him to die. But I felt gratitude when someone gave me a book and tucked $300 into its pages. Money we desperately needed because he lost his job.”

“Dang, that’s cool!”

Big Blessings or Small Mercies

“I felt grateful for friends who would take me to the airport in a blinding snowstorm at four in the morning. Little things, perhaps, considering the darkness hovering over our lives. But each one provided a pin-prick of light.”

I saw heads nodding around the classroom. Even though I knew the first student had launched the question to avoid a quiz, I continued. I’ve learned to go with the teachable moments students will remember long after they forget the content of a quiz.

“When we practice radical gratitude,” I said, “we allow ourselves to set aside the stress of our circumstances long enough to feel grateful. We also allow ourselves an opportunity to learn.”

I looked around the room once more. “Everyone, take a moment to think of something they’re grateful for and share it with your neighbor.” I watched as students chatted quietly for a few minutes. They seemed relaxed and happy.

“Now, clear your desks and make sure you have a writing implement. It’s time for that quiz.”

“Ah, man! I’d forgotten about the quiz!”

“Don’t worry,” I assured them, “everyone seems pretty happy just now, and being in a good mood will help you do better on your quiz.”

Radical Gratitude and the Ability to Learn

Fortunately, no one questioned me that day on my statement about mood and quiz performance. I didn’t have any research to back me up. But I had learned about our affective filter during my days studying bilingual-bicultural education at Washington State University.

Back in the 80s, I learned how when under stress, our minds lose their ability to learn or process new information. For example, I speak passable Spanish, but not with people who stress me out. I had someone in my life at the time who would harangue me in Spanish each time we met. Although I understood her, I could never speak to her in Spanish.

According to my professors, the situation raised my affective filter, which crippled my ability to produce intelligible speech in a foreign language. In retrospect, I wonder what would have happened if I had silently repeated things about the person I felt grateful for at the start of each of our encounters?

And how much more did my English as a Second Language students feel the effects of stress each time they entered a classroom full of people who didn’t speak their language? So, while I have a book somewhere with research proving the affective filter exists, I can’t cite a source for how radical gratitude affects the mind’s ability to learn.

Although many educators will tell you about the importance of making their classrooms safe places because security lowers a student’s affective filter. Which in turn makes it easier for them to learn.  

This brings us back to radical gratitude.

The Science Behind Radical Gratitude and Improved Learning

Scientists have studied the effects of gratitude on mental health, and we know gratitude improves our mood. So, I made the leap (without the proper academic parachute) to equating radical gratitude to our ability to learn. If we feel safe (as measured by mood and mental health), we can learn more easily.

I teach remedial math to students who have experienced high levels of trauma (both personal and generational). The trauma has resulted in Swiss-cheese learning—their knowledge of basic math operations is full of holes.

Call my students stupid, lazy, unmotivated, dumb, or not able to learn, and I’ll turn into an angry mama bear. They suffer from the effects of trauma and nothing more. The faster I can give them something to feel grateful for and the better I can make them feel about themselves, the more quickly they’ll catch on to the missing math concepts.

I’ve had a few bouts with hopelessness, and I can attest to how it chips away at my mind’s ability to think straight, much less learn new material.

Hacks to Express Radical Gratitude

Throughout Pedro’s experience with cancer and my experience as his caregiver, I found small ways to express gratitude. I didn’t feel grateful for cancer at the moment, but I did feel grateful for those pinpricks of light.

When we finally made it through the tunnel, we could look at the experience without bitterness. We discovered many areas for growth because of our journey.

1. Focus On One Pinprick

During turmoil, look for one pinprick of light. Focus on it long enough to give thanks or express your gratitude. I gave thanks every morning Pedro woke up during his battle with cancer—whether he had tubes running in and out of him in the ICU or made it through another night on the cancer ward floor.

Find just one pinprick of light—someone’s sympathetic smile, a flower in bloom, a sunset blazing across the sky, or a star-filled night. Allow yourself to focus on the wonder and feel radical gratitude.

2. Remember the Journey

Micah 6:5 urges us to remember our journey and recognize the righteous acts of the Lord. Set aside time in your life—whether on Thanksgiving Day, once a month, each week, or daily, and think about your journey. How have you seen God’s hand in your life?

I didn’t come to appreciate the worst and best time of my life at the moment. It took reflection and choosing radical gratitude before I could see how the journey through cancer defined both of us and prepared us for things to come.

“Remember your journey from Shittim to Gilgal, that you may know the righteous acts of the Lord.”

Micah 6:5b NIV

3. Radical Gratitude is a Choice

Ever heard of radical gratitude? It's the ability to express gratitude and be thankful even in life's worst circumstances. Can practicing it change our ability to learn? #radicalgratitude #gratitude #thankfulness #Thanksgiving #growthmindset #cancer #caregiving #attitude #lifelonglearning #trauma

We don’t have to practice radical gratitude. No one can force us to give thanks or feel grateful. As free agents, we can control how we respond to the bad things that happen to us. When we choose gratefulness, we lower our affective filter. We open our minds to learning lessons rather than reacting to situations.

A growth mindset requires an attitude of gratitude. Without radical gratitude, we focus on the negative and impossible. Which makes it difficult to add the word ‘yet’ into our pronouncements. Acknowledging our journey (to learn new information, a new skill, or new ways of looking at ourselves) requires us to give ourselves grace with the three-letter word YET.

4. Humility and Gratitude Go Hand in Hand

I remember supervising a group of adults at the summer camp where I worked as they saddled horses for an afternoon excursion. Some had more experience with horses than others, and I walked around the corrals helping.

I noticed one lady struggled to carry the heavy western saddle to her mount. “Can I help you?” I asked. This woman, ten years older than me and a very popular staff member, intimidated me. It took a lot of courage for me to ask if I could assist her.

“No. I know what I’m doing,” she assured me. “I grew up with horses and I know how to saddle a horse.” I watched as she flung the saddle on the horse and reached under for the cinch. Not the way I would do it, but she had experience and age.

Embarrassed at her rebuff, I walked away to check on another horse. Five minutes later, I called for everyone to lead their horses to the arena so I could do a final gear check before we left on the trail ride.

“What in the world?” I heard the popular lady exclaim as she tried to lead her mount towards the arena. “Why aren’t you moving?”

I jogged to the other side of her mount and stifled a giggle. Despite claiming to know her way around horses, the lady had saddled the horse to the hitching post when she failed to step around to the other side and check her equipment before tightening the cinch.

Maybe you’ve experienced how humility makes it easier for us to learn, too. Radical gratitude keeps our hearts humble. Proverbs 11:2 says, “When pride comes, then comes disgrace, but with humility comes wisdom.”

Make a Habit of Radical Gratitude and See What Happens

Despite my lack of academic proof, I hold fast to my theory of radical gratitude improving our ability to learn. I challenge you to make a habit of radical gratitude and take note of what happens. I’d love to hear how gratitude has made a difference in your life.

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  1. Beautiful and powerful message, my friend! I really like the idea of radical gratitude. It really does have the power to change your perspective which in turn changes your entire life…for the better, in my experience. It is those darkest of times that teach us what we are capable of and there are always lessons to be learned at every turn in this life. Thank you for always sharing your vulnerable moments to teach these important lessons!


  2. “Remember the journey … How have you seen God’s hand in your life?” Anita, looking back and remembering helps me to hold onto His faithfulness in the present. May I never forget the goodness of the Lord!

  3. Amen, Anita! Speaking gratitude often clears our heads and opens our hearts. Life is healthier, our minds clearer because we’re not hauling resentments and junk around.

    God sure knew what He was doing when He knit us together …

  4. Anita! I think gratitude would help us learn. We are focusing on something good and our brain would be more open to the experience and have better recall. Relaxing during a test helps and gratitude helps us relax. Gratitude can help in so many ways, especially changing our perspective. Proverbs 11:2 with humility comes wisdom – never thought of it that way. Your posts make me think, and I like that. .

  5. If I hadn’t participated in Voskamps 1000 Gifts, I don’t think I would have been prepared to see the blessings when my husband went through his health crisis. Radical gratitude teaches the eyes and soul to look for to find, to expect the little and big blessings. It also changes the joy factor in my life! I love how your stories are woven into your messages!

  6. Such an incredible post- wow. I do believe in this…step by step, as it’s super difficult to totally immerse yourself at the onset of a hardship. I love your tips. I strongly believe in this- love, love this post!

  7. Hmm…you’re making me think that maybe a horrible situation I am in right now might actually turn out to be something I can find radical gratitude in at some point (I can’t even imagine that!). Thanks for your wisdom, Anita. I’ll be looking for that one pinprick of light.

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Anita Ojeda

Anita Ojeda juggles writing with teaching high school English and history. When she's not lurking in odd places looking for rare birds, you can find her camping with her kids, adventuring with her husband or mountain biking with her students.

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