A junior high school teacher spent his life defying stereotypes about how men should express their emotions. Here he takes on a new challenge: getting his students to express gratitude.
Dacher Keltner interviews Stephen Leeper on The Science of Happiness Podcast (20:05)
STEPHEN’S GRANDMOTHER [singing] Come by here, Lord. Come by, here… [baby crying]
STEPHEN LEEPER My grandmother, my maternal grandmother, she grew up in Waxhaw, North Carolina, and she grew up on a farm.
So she had a big family. She had like almost 10 siblings. And they were sharecroppers, so they actually lived and worked on a white family’s farm and she used to tell me about her schooling. She went to what was called a shotgun school, what she called a shotgun school. So it was like a little shack, you know, raggedy shack. And they didn’t even have chairs and desks. But she enjoyed school. And when my grandmother was in sixth grade she had to drop out of school because her father died. Her mother was left with all these kids she had to raise on her own and so she dropped out of school to pick cotton and help on the farm. I mean, there’s a lot of painful experiences that she had growing up just being really poor. But despite all of that, you know, she maintained a level of appreciation for what she had. I mean, I can’t imagine growing up in the ‘30s in the South as a black person, period. And especially a black woman, to be able to go through the things that she went through, experiencing sexual violence, domestic violence, seeing a lot of violence against people in her life and to come out of all of that and still like have a kind of inner peace and contentment is really difficult for me to understand. Yeah, even to this day. It’s really incredible, and it’s a miracle. It’s clear to her that the things that she has experienced, and the sacrifices she’s made has made a better life for my mother and a better life for me and my brothers.
And it was really important to her that we knew that, and that we understood that, and that we were grateful—not to her necessarily, but grateful for the sacrifices that those came before us made so that we can experience a much easier life. It was interesting, because it was—by her telling us the stories, it was reminding her of what she has to be grateful for, but also trying to instill in us a practice of gratitude through remembrance. Remember where you come from, remember what you experienced in the past. Remember the difficulties and hardships you’ve been through to get you to where you are today and you survived that, and you will survive other calamities and tragedies because that’s who we are, and that’s our history. And that’s where we come from.
STEPHEN’S GRANDMOTHER [singing]
Somebody need you, Lord. Come by here.
Somebody needs you, Lord. [baby cooing] Come by here.
DACHER KELTNER Years after learning about the power of gratitude from his grandmother, Stephen Leeper tries to pay it forward by instilling this most virtuous of emotions in his kids. All 135 of them.
[kids talking, piano playing]
DACHER KELTNER Stephen’s an ethnic studies teacher at a junior high school in San Francisco. Growing up in Charlotte, North Carolina, he was taught by his friends and his family and even his girlfriends that he shouldn’t show his emotions. Not as a black man in the South; it’s a sign of weakness. But Stephen is challenging these stereotypes by teaching his students the importance of reflecting on and expressing their current emotions. He’s also our happiness guinea pig and is here to talk to us about the practice he chose to try, to boost not only his positive emotions, but the gratitude and goodwill of the people around him.
On each episode of our show we have a happiness guinea pig try out a science-based practice to increase things like gratitude and resilience and kindness and cooperation.
DACHER KELTNER Stephen, thanks for joining us on the Science of Happiness.
STEPHEN LEEPER Thank you.
DACHER KELTNER Where were you when you were 13 and 14? What was your middle school experience like?
STEPHEN LEEPER A lot of posturing. I mean, the high school is when the posturing really became prevalent, but it began in middle school. You gotta look hard and gotta look tough, especially as a young boy learning the patriarchal script of how boys should be. It was actually very stressful. Being in that environment and having to wear a mask like that all the time.
DACHER KELTNER Yeah, well put. I have to ask you why in the world you would subject yourself to the torture of teaching middle school? I remember, I was early in my career, I had this opportunity to do some guest visits to middle school classrooms. I’m like, ‘Oh, this going to be easy.’ And it was tough! Why’d you choose that?
STEPHEN LEEPER Well, I didn’t want to teach middle school originally, I wanted to teach high school. [laughter] But I don’t regret entering the classroom, even at a middle school, because it’s really helped me become a better person, like holistically. It’s really forced me to do a lot of introspection about how I relate to young people but also like thinking about my experiences at that age and what I learned that I can share with them to help guide them in a really difficult time in their lives.
DACHER KELTNER It’s incredible, Stephen, how much we learn from the kids that we teach if we open ourselves up to it. So as our happiness guinea pig, you chose a practice that actually got your junior high school students involved. You had them keep a gratitude journal, which I know a lot of our listeners are trying, which is a practice that hundreds of studies have linked to all kinds of benefits: better mood, greater happiness, less stress, lower risk of heart attack, even better sleep. And you used a version we created specifically that was tailored to students. Tell us what you did.
STEPHEN LEEPER Students had to write down things that they’re grateful for and have like a physical record of that that they can go back to and reference. And I really encourage depth over breadth, like you don’t have to answer like, say like a hundred things that you’re grateful for briefly. It’s better to focus on a few different things that you’re grateful for, and just go deep there and then kind of sit with that and explore that. Try subtraction, not just addition. So consider what your life would be like without certain people or things. Think about someone in your life that you know you couldn’t live without or things that you couldn’t do without. And to also record events that were unexpected or surprising, you know, whatever comes up. I think the journal prompts bring up certain memories and certain things that you haven’t thought about in a while. I know it certainly is the case for me and so if that happens, like go with that and see where that takes you.
STEPHEN LEEPER So what I had them do is every day—we already had a journal that they did weekly but I switched it to daily for the practice, and then I gave them a list of prompts. Each day it was a different set of prompts.
DACHER KELTNER Can you walk us through some of the prompts?
STEPHEN LEEPER Yeah, so one of the prompts is ‘Look into your phone [laughter] and find a photo of which you are grateful—’
DACHER KELTNER That’s amazing!
STEPHEN LEEPER ’—And explain why you’re grateful for that photo.’
DACHER KELTNER What’d they pick?
STEPHEN LEEPER They picked all sorts of things.
Picture with their dogs, picture of them at, you know, a selfie at a restaurant they’re eating out with their friends and their families, like all sorts of things. And one of the reasons I chose different prompts each time—
DACHER KELTNER Great idea.
STEPHEN LEEPER —Is because that was feedback I got from one of my students, or actually one of my classes. And they’re like, ‘Why we gotta do all the same prompts every week?’
DACHER KELTNER It’s boring for an eighth grader.
STEPHEN LEEPER It’s easy for the teacher because it’s just like set and it’s the same thing every—but I took the feedback and I’d change it up every day. Different prompts.
DACHER KELTNER Cool. How’d it go? I mean, what were some of the challenges that they had? ‘Cause most the eighth graders I’ve been around, they’re not forthcoming or overflowing. [laughter]
STEPHEN LEEPER You know, it’s interesting because you’d think that, but they actually—it’s pretty fluid for them, even though they might kind of groan, some of them when they do it. But I mean, I think I probably had the highest participation of journaling when we did the gratitude journals. It was just easier for them to write about that than some of the other things I had them write about.
DACHER KELTNER And what came up in terms of the life themes that they started to write about as prompted by gratitude? What struck you?
STEPHEN LEEPER A lot about family, about moms and grandmothers, pets. They talked about traveling that they had done with their families. Yeah, it wasn’t a lot about school that they were grateful for.
DACHER KELTNER Or you. [laughter].
STEPHEN LEEPER Yeah. Well, I know that they’re grateful for me.
DACHER KELTNER Oh, of course they are.
STEPHEN LEEPER They don’t have to write that.
DACHER KELTNER Whenever I speak to parents about gratitude, you know, and they’re struggling to get their kids to express some gratitude I always remind them of those—just your findings. That’s one of the first findings, Emmons and McAuliff, on gratitude that the things that come up are like ‘my mom and grandmother, ’ you know. What did it teach the kids to do this exercise?
STEPHEN LEEPER I think it taught them to reach deep.
To think about, in the midst of all of the things that you have to complain about that aren’t going your way. What is going your way, and what is sustaining you right now? Like you’re still here. You’re physically here. You’re emotionally here. You’re present. And why is that? What sustains you? What keeps you going?
And I think that their realizing can really have an effect on their mood and how they feel. And to also be aware of that moods are states that are transient, like they’re temporary. And feel one way now, but then when you think about something you’re grateful for, or think about something makes you happy, it can completely change your mood.
DACHER KELTNER Yeah. What a deep lesson, right? To get an adolescent to think like, what feels so intense right now is going to be changing in a minute or two. As you did these different gratitude journaling practices were there any student’s contributions that really stuck with you, or they hit you hard?
STEPHEN LEEPER Yeah, there are.
DACHER KELTNER Would you mind reading a few?
STEPHEN LEEPER Sure, yeah. So this student said, ‘I’m grateful for my mom. She’s always there for me and she is so strong. If it weren’t for her I wouldn’t be here. She is like the glue to our family. She holds us all together.’
And then a photo. This is the dog photo. ‘I’m grateful for my dog because my dog brings me a lot of joy in my life. I’m also grateful for him because even though he brings me joy, he also brought me responsibility. That’s why I’m grateful for my dog.’ And then there was a journal, I don’t have the journal entry because the student took her journal home and she hasn’t brought it back yet, but she actually shared her journal entry in front of the class and it was about the story of—it was either her niece or her cousin, a baby girl that was just born, and she was just so grateful for the opportunity to hold her and grateful for new life in the midst of a lot of loss that she had been experiencing as of late, so that one really stuck with me.
DACHER KELTNER Yeah, powerful stuff.
STEPHEN LEEPER One student in particular, her name is Tatiana. The reason that hers stuck with me is because it’s been a very difficult year for her. She’s experienced a tremendous amount of loss in her family. Her grandmother, great grandmother. She has a brother who passed away some time ago, and stresses related to school as well and so she’s been going through a lot. I asked her about what does this gratitude journal mean for you right now, at this time of your life. And she shared a really incredible anecdote about that.
STUDENT Once my Mamita Noor died I started writing all the good memories that I had of her. And it just, it just brought me at peace and happiness. And so when I was thinking back and hearing and reading everything out loud and remembering all this stuff, it just made me happy. Like one thing is she made me a dress that I really loved but there was this one dress I hated because it was pink. And I remember, she would always ask me, ‘Why don’t you wear it?’ I finally told her I was like, ‘I just don’t like the color pink, OK?’ And she was like, ‘What do you mean you don’t like the color pink. You’re a girl, you’re supposed to like the color pink!’ And I remember she forced me to wear the dress into church. I was just stomping mad into church with like a pink fluffy dress going thud, thud, thud. And now looking back at it I just see it’s like really, really funny.
STEPHEN LEEPER Yeah.
STEPHEN LEEPER You’re grateful for that memory.
STEPHEN LEEPER Yeah. How do you feel like writing about gratitude has been for you in your life right now, in the midst of so much loss?
STUDENT It’s helping me, I’d say, because it’s not, it’s not letting me think about like the bad. I could write why I’m like so thankful and I have gratitude towards this person, and what they’ve done in their lifetime with me. It’s just a nice way of thinking back and like saying, ‘Oh, I’m really grateful for these people for being in my life.’ And, you know, just thinking back at all the good memories and forgetting about like, ‘Oh, she’s gone,’ and stuff like that you’re just thinking that, you know, she’s watching over me now with the rest of my family.
DACHER KELTNER Wow, that’s just incredible intelligence and insight. It’s dynamic teaching those eighth graders, isn’t it?
STEPHEN LEEPER Yeah, it is. It’s helping me in ways that I didn’t know I would need. Especially this young lady. My grandfather died on Thanksgiving in 2017. And just to see her resilience; it’s amazing. I didn’t have the amount of emotional intelligence that she has when I was her age. I don’t think I was equipped with the skills that I would need to really navigate the way she’s navigated so beautifully.
DACHER KELTNER So incredible. I love your innovation of having them submit a photo. What other ways would you change up this practice of cultivating gratitude in the journalling?
STEPHEN LEEPER I have a lot of students that like to doodle and draw, you know? I have little sticky notes of doodles all over—at the end of the day it’s just like doodles everywhere. And so they’re doing it anyways, why not have them incorporate that into the journal so that there are other ways to express gratitude other than just in writing. So I think that incorporating some kind of visual aspect is something that I might like to try.
DACHER KELTNER That’d be awesome; I hear scientists out there right now like, ‘I want to test that!’ That’s a terrific idea. Did any of your classes ask you to participate?
STEPHEN LEEPER Yeah.
My fifth period class, on the first day of the journal. I asked who would like to share and a couple people shared and then one student said, ‘What are you grateful for, Mr. Leeper?’ And another one was like, yeah. What are you grateful for?’ And I got really emotional in that moment and I said, ‘I feel
like if I start talking I’m going to start crying.’ And then one of them says, ‘It’s OK. You can cry.’ [laughter] And then I started to well up, and I stood in the front of the room and cried. And it was really powerful because in that moment I felt really held by my students. And some of them started to tear up as well. And the only thing I was managed to get out, words to get out was, ‘I’m grateful for you all. I’m grateful for my students and I feel really held up by all of you.’
DACHER KELTNER Yeah. So Stephen, what was your biggest takeaway in doing this gratitude practice, what did it teach you about teaching, and your kids, and the necessity of gratitude in the classroom?
STEPHEN LEEPER Yeah, I think the take for me is that gratitude isn’t simply being happy about things when things are going wrong. It’s not like a grin-and-bear-it kind of practice. It’s the acknowledgement that though I am experiencing pain in my life right now, there are also sources of joy and hope in my life. And it’s that feeling you get inside when you recognize those sources of joy and hope, like that’s gratitude.
DACHER KELTNER Nice. Well, Stephen, I am always humbled being around the real teachers of the world because I know you guys are the glue of our society and I know how many students you’re touching, so thank you so much for being on The Science of Happiness.
STEPHEN LEEPER Thanks for having me.
DACHER KELTNER One of the things that parents think a lot about is how to teach gratitude to their kids, something many of us do. And I remember struggling with it, but now we have a robust science on gratitude and how, in many different ways, is this key to the meaningful life and happiness.
It’s good for your health, helps you sort of change the lens through which you see the world. It’s really good for relationship, our lab shown. The list goes on. In fact, so robust is the science that we did a radio special about it a few years back, hosted by Susan Sarandon.
SUSAN SARANDON Gratitude means that we notice the good things in our lives, and recognize that we can’t take all the credit for them.
DACHER KELTNER For years, scientific studies have focused strictly on adults. But more recently, researchers have been exploring the particular benefits for kids and students practicing gratitude as well. One of the pioneers in this science is Jeffrey Froh, a psychology professor at Hofstra University in New York. In one study, Froh and his colleagues had elementary school students complete a gratitude curriculum teaching them how to be more thankful 30 minutes a day for one week, and then another group of students just wrote about their daily activities without focusing on gratitude.
JEFFREY FROH Not only do we find that the kids became more grateful, and their grateful thinking increased as well. But the kids who received the curriculum wrote and delivered 80 percent more thank you cards to their PTA.
And the reason why this is so tremendous is that a gratitude intervention is indeed related with actual changes in behavior. I mean, think about it. If we were to ask these kids a simple self report question, ‘If the PTA gave you a presentation on a scale of 1 to 10, how likely would you be to write a thank you card to them?’ Everyone’s going to say 10. But in this instance, we gave them an opportunity to either hang out and play with their friends, or take some time to write this thank you card. There was no pressure on them at all.
Grateful kids are happier, they’re much more satisfied with their lives. They’re satisfied with their family, with their friends, with their school, with their neighborhood, with themselves. They also report more optimism and also more contentment. Less depression, less envy, higher GPA. So it’s like this laundry list of positive outcomes when you have a grateful mindset. Gratitude is social Krazy Glue. You know, so it is going to strengthen the relationships. When you express it to somebody, you let them know that you value them, that you respect them, that you trust them, that you appreciate the very thing that they did, that you acknowledge that they went out of their way for you.
Just that there alone increases the bond. It’s an expression of love. A classroom where gratitude is promoted, there’s going to be a lot more kindness expressed. And just generally speaking, I think there’s gonna be much more harmony and peace.
DACHER KELTNER: If you’d like to try the gratitude journal practice with kids or students, or try it out yourself, visit our Greater Good in Action website at ggia.berkeley.edu, then email us at firstname.lastname@example.org and tell us how it went. I’m Dacher Keltner. Thanks for joining me on the Science of Happiness.
Our podcast is a co-production of UC Berkeley’s Greater Good Science Center. and PRI-PRX, with production assistance from Jennie Cataldo and Ben Manilla of BMP Audio. Our producer Shuka Kalantari. Our associate producer is Lee Mengistu. Our executive producer is Jane Park. Additional reporting for this episode was by Laura Klivans. Our editor-in-chief is Jason Marsh. Special thanks to UC Berkeley’s Graduate School of Journalism. Please join us for a live recording of the Science of Happiness and hear from myself, Jack Kornfield, Barbara Fredrickson and other speakers at our first-ever Science of Happiness event held in the Santa Cruz Mountains of California from May 2nd to 5th. Learn more at ggsc.berkeley.edu.
This interview originally appeared on Greater Good, the online magazine of the Greater Good Science Center at UC Berkeley. For more, visit greatergood.berkeley.edu.
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