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Gratitude Gardens: Living Expressions of Gratitude that Grow and Propagate

Provide a forum to express gratitude that benefits everyone, emotionally and aesthetically.

Photo of Minna Kim
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This project is a proposal to create both a virtual and physical space to perpetuate gratitude in both arenas.  Expressions of gratitude in the virtual world will result in a tangible beautification of barren spaces of the workplace with both plants and the messages of gratitude.  

Every time someone is thanked by a colleague, a plant, like a small succulent, would be added on campus.  These plants would create garden areas or "living walls" in the currently green-less/ sad spaces on campus.  

Not only would each colleague's act that inspired gratitude be memorialized by a living, growing plant, but contributors would also be recognized.  For every 5 expressions of gratitude, a solar light would be added in honor of the contributor -a literal and metaphorical representation of the illumination that the contributor gave to the act of kindness.  The incentive to participate is not an individual reward, but a collective one that grows -representative of how gratitude is both life-giving and self-perpetuating. The tangible, beautifying result would remind employees how much there is to be grateful for while motivating further expressions of gratitude.  

To encourage genuine expressions of gratitude, there is no personal reward for participation.  Instead, the planting of a new plant in the green-deprived spaces on campus would beautify the space while creating pockets of space more inviting to the creation of community. 


CONTEXT & PHYSICAL SPACE: We are a public high school of 188 staff members and 1633 students located in a busy metropolitan area. Currently, neither staff nor students use the outdoor seating areas on campus because of its uninviting nature.  In fact, because construction and renovation efforts have blocked off a lot of the green spaces and seating areas available on campus, students and staff have no natural space (with greenery) to congregate and create community.

Pictured below is an area adjacent to 40 temporary bungalows called "The Village." Note the peeling paint on the walls and the overall concrete sadness.  The reconstruction has also decentralized our campus, making face-to-face interaction with colleagues all the more a challenge. 

For the pilot, we plan on planting a living wall in the area pictured to serve as and frame a literal space to create community.  This physical communal space would follow the creation of a metaphorical one established by expressions of gratitude.  


Day One of the pilot began with the email below to 14 colleague who agreed to help test the prototype.  The email included a simple template to guide expressions of gratitude, in addition to references to research on the benefits of gratitude.


Participation felt warm and sincere, and were often followed by a rally of agreement and further gratitude.  Here is an example of one of the many expressions sent:

Thank you Romeo for allowing me to borrow your AMAZING students to help Normanaid with our net-smart video. You have mentored KBEV students into true professionals. Most importantly, you have created a space for many students to thrive and be successful who without your leadership they may not have the opportunity to know what they are capable of accomplishing.Our peer counseling team would have never been able to create a technology video without the help of KBEV!-Ali Norman

(To access the entire archive of expressions of gratitude, click here:


On the second day of the launch, we added staff members from The Village, totaling participants to 32.  Here are the numbers of expressions by date:

Soon, because the recipients of the "thank yous" were not limited to the participants in the pilot, the word about the Gratitude Garden project spread across campus.  It was discussed at an all-teacher meeting, and after getting the ok from the principal, we added the entire staff as participants in the project on Dec 4.  The number of expressions exploded soon after:

(note the spike on Dec 5th!  More on that in THE CHALLENGES section)


The 188 staff members are made up of teachers, administrators, security staff, office staff, counselors, instructional assistants, food services staff, custodians, and maintenance and operations (M&0) staff.  The stacked bars below show the number of staff members thanked by role (top) compared to the number of staff members total (bottom).

The 106 total expressions of gratitude (as of Dec 7 or 12 days of the pilot) were written by 68 individual staff members.  The group of gratitude expressers, the most active participants, made up 36% of the total staff.  The recipients, 79 individuals (some receiving more than one expression), captured a larger proportion of the staff, 42%.  Expressions crossed both geographical and occupational boundaries.


This event, planned for Dec 14, involved the collaboration of many volunteers and generous donors.  This event is planned for the lunch period before a scheduled staff meeting in hopes of increasing attendance. A variety of succulents (with the names of those thanked on planting labels next to them) will be available for the staff to help install into the living wall.  

To continue the acknowledgement of each staff member's contribution to the community, the expressions of gratitude written during the pilot will project on one of the nearby walls during the event.

This event would allow staff to reinforce the community built in the virtual space, while the expressions of gratitude would "prime" staff members to be more willing to see other staff members as part of their team.


The "spike" on Dec 5 reflected a great explosion of gratitude, likely from the contagion of gratitude and a great need to connect in a positive way.  Of the 34 respondents who completed the survey of open-ended questions, the great majority of the feedback was positive:

"I loved that this project helped our community to re-discover the goodness that surrounds us."
"We, as a community, have gone through many challenges over the past five years, and, in that, we have lost much of our sense of community. This project helped us to find that again and helped us to venture out of the isolation of our classroom."
"its contagious once one hears a thank you its easy to think of thanking others aloud"
"It is so easy to critique negatively and rarely demonstrate what we appreciate"
"It was reminder that it feels good to express gratitude"
"Brought the staff together more. Lets us hear what we don't hear enough of."
"It is so easy to critique negatively and rarely demonstrate what we appreciate"

People were excited about:

"the happiness that this project brings to many people"
"Actually seeing the garden"
"To hear how much we value each other"
"Planting seeds to allow for a growth of a physically prettier and more positive campus.""making someone's day better"
"The wonderful comments and feeling of inclusion"
"Everyone's enthusiasm to show gratitude towards others"
"the recognition of those unsung heroes we may not otherwise remember to acknowledge"

While the great majority of feedback discussed the benefits to the individual, the staff as a team, and the campus, the criticism was focused in two areas: the overwhelming number of emails in our inboxes, and concerns about inclusiveness (the first two weeks did not include the entire staff):

"I think everyone is just so excited that, like other things, overkill lessons the impact. I think as time goes on, people will write thoughts of gratitude less often with more impact. (that sounds negative, but I hope you understand what I mean)the individual posts weren't always clear about being part of the project."

"Too many emails!"

"am wondering if staff members who were not mentioned felt 'left out'of the activity"


The feedback generally implied that the pilot, though not polished, met its goals in increasing morale, positive contact between staff members, starting the shift in our workplace culture, and a general increase in feelings of gratitude both in and outside the workplace.

The biggest challenge is long-term funding as donations of both money and time fueled the pilot. Despite the eco and cost-friendly design of the garden itself, the great number of volunteer hours needed to administer the project make this 100% volunteer & donation model unsustainable.  While we initially thought that email was a viable forum and that no other electronic space was necessary, the Dec 5th spike seemed to challenge otherwise.  All that said, a long-term funding source to maintain the garden, purchase supplies, find a way to automate archiving of the gratitude expressions, and provide an administrator who would be able to keep the project running in a way that would still take advantage of volunteers and allow the parts of the garden to serve other purposes on campus.  

By allowing the garden to be maintained by students in a horticulture/ edible garden/ composting program itself, the garden could provide its own supplies and maintenance, while being used for other purposes, like a restorative justice program. Without this, administering this project would quickly cause burnt out (which is one of the problems facing public sector employees that this project was designed to address).

Idea Title

Gratitude Garden: Living Expressions of Gratitude that Grow and Propagate

How the Idea will inspire the experience and expression of gratitude within an organization.

I rarely get to interact in person with other adults on campus. The few times I do are in hurried meetings or short exchanges where there is only room for small talk and venting. However, a lot of adult interaction happens via email. The project's virtual platform to express gratitude is designed for increased positive contact between the campus staff, first virtually, and then in person as the garden grows. More important is the impact on morale. While most people do not enter public service to make $, there are not the same financial expressions of thanks for hard work as in the private sector. This idea allows us to recognize people's work in a way that benefits all on campus.

Who are you innovating for?

Public ORGs/ Schools, particularly employees who serve and interact with the public during most of their workday, & face increased workloads with fewer resources. Opportunities to interact with coworkers beyond venting -which often compounds stress -are rare. These employees need space to create community that honors and supports their work. A culture of gratitude provides motivation and allows the employees to focus on the nobler purposes of their work rather than its frustrating limitations.

What type of workplaces are you innovating for?

While the idea was birthed with our organization in mind -a high school campus large enough for employees to only know the 10-20% who share their geographical area or responsibilities -it would benefit any organization whose work is either public service or whose employees are otherwise decentralized. The prototype, tested first with 16, then 32 employees, and then expanded to all 188, demonstrated that it benefits at any size. Our campus is in the heart of a busy city with limited green space.

How you envision the Idea being introduced to your selected organization?

In our prototype, the Principal and I discussed the Gratitude Garden at a staff meeting; the face-to-face introduction helped to kick off the virtual interaction. To keep momentum going, weekly follow ups on emails that included pictures of the growing gardens and small events (like coffee & doughnuts) within the garden areas to honor the contributors could be held. Possible parties and partnerships needed for implementation: myself, principal & admin team, PTSA, custodial staff, the tech department, Board of Education, plant nurseries, businesses specializing in landscaping, Service Learning class, student and parent volunteers.

What obstacles, if any, do you foresee in implementing this Idea, and how would they be overcome?

Bureaucratic red tape: at any public institution, decisions have to go through many tiers of approval. We used prior relationships to help cut the # of meetings. Physical implementation: Public employees are spread thin. Execution may happen with the cooperation of student/staff volunteers, and groundskeeping staff. Long-term funding. The prototype was funded entirely by donations. While succulents offer a budget and eco-friendly option, there is still funding needed to run the program

How will you test and prototype your solution?

The prototype used a forums already available email, and heavily relied on colleagues who have established relationships with private donor who also fund their similarly worthy goals. Initial participation could be measured in several ways: # of expressions of thanks via email # of students/ staff who use the area as a result of the increased green

What immediate next steps will you take if you receive an implementation grant.

-Find a platform for the virtual gratitude bulletin board. -Discuss logistics (placement, maintenance) for additional gardens across campus. -Partner with GGSC to provide research to present to the Board for this project and to promote further projects in Social-Emotional Learning. -Partner with GGSC to help us study the effect of this project on school culture/ public employees. -Connect with private donors for long-term funding for the program

At what stage of development is your Idea?

  • Research & Early Testing: You are exploring an idea, gathering inspiration and information needed to test it with real users.
  • Prototyping: You have conducted some small tests or experiments with prospective users and will continue developing idea through these tests.
  • Piloting: You have started to implement your solution as a whole with a first set of real users. You may have started to develop a business model for your idea, including identifying key customer segments, relevant partnerships, go-to-market strategy, and draft financials.
  • Full-scale roll-out: You have developed a pilot, tested, and analyzed the impact of that pilot as it pertains to the problem scope. You are ready to expand the pilot significantly and begin to scale.

Please describe from where your Idea emerged

My friend's husband died of cancer last year. Since his passing, we tend her garden together once a month. The experience has taught me about how getting to interact with beautiful things in nature and watching them grow can be healing. In contrast, the lack of natural beauty on campus is something I confront every morning. The 2016 GGCS Educators' Institute asked participants to imagine what campus would ideally be. For me it was a culture where staff inspired one another via its interaction.

Tell us about yourself

I'm a high school English teacher. I've been teaching for 19 years, 13 years on this campus. I'm a member of the Professional Development committee, one that I joined because I wanted to change the culture on campus.

Where are you / your team located?

Beverly Hills, CA.

Please describe your legal and organizational structure

We are a public school.

Company / Organization Name

Beverly Hills High School

Website (the pictures of the facility are pre-renovation/construction)

Tell us about your experience

I'm an English teacher and have taught American Literature for the past 17 years. The theme is "The Myth of the American Dream"; American authors tell us over and over again that money does not equal happiness. In my pursuit to find what does result in happiness (personally and to add to my curriculum), I found the Science of Happiness course via GGSC and as a Cal grad. I attended the GGSC Educator's Institute in 2016 and have read Keltner's work on power, awe, & listened to his itunes class.

Please describe, in detail, how you will test and get feedback on your concept.

The prototype will launch next week with a smaller group on campus, the English Department. The English Department will use the school's email for specific expressions of gratitude for staff within the campus, both in and out of the department. Each expression is sent to to the person being thanked, with the English department copied. This way, the members of the English department continue to be exposed to expressions of gratitude even if these members do not actively participate. I hypothesize that even the passive witnessing of these expressions will increase good feelings and mental health associated with gratitude, and the feeling of being part of a community whose work is valued. Ultimately, I hope to see the expressions of gratitude increase as a result of just being copied on the email, and as a result of seeing the campus become more beautiful. UPDATE (current expressions)

Please describe specifically how you plan to scale your idea. What are the key next steps you will take, and how will those steps inform the evolution and growth of your concept?

We started with a small group of 14 teachers, but soon ended up adding about 18 more who were closest to where the initial living wall would be planted. Since then, the momentum has grown; as more messages of gratitude get sent, the increase further grows the number of active participators. The next logical step seems to be to open it up to the entire staff for both active and passive participation. (UPDATE: Entire staff added 12.4) Working with the prototype via email has been effective, and has virtually introduced me to people whose names I am unfamiliar. These gratitude expressions establish great first impressions of co-workers with whom I rarely interact, another great benefit of the prototype. To further facilitate these new connections, finding a platform or a way to add pictures to email would be a step in keeping the expressions personal and beneficial (vs. additional "noise" in the inbox). Since we are a fairly large staff, the increased number of participants and increased # of expressions over the long run risk turning into "noise" in an inbox, and also may be vulnerable to hedonic adaptation. To address these concerns, there would need to be ways to "renew" the project through strategic expansion and novelty: add living walls to another area on campus or monthly planting ceremonies, for examples. Other ways to expand and maintain growth could also involve students: planning social events near the gardens, having students involved in maintenance, etc

As we have seen in the Challenge, there is a tension between authentic expressions of gratitude and mandatory gratitude. How does your idea inspire truly authentic expressions of gratitude versus mandated ones?

Because the result of these expressions of gratitude are completely voluntary and do not result in any personal monetary gain for the recipient or the person who expresses gratitude, there is little incentive to participate aside from wanting to actually thank the recipient and benefit the entire community with a plant. In fact, the area we are using for the prototype would primarily be accessed by students, who would be the primary beneficiaries of the physical space.

Gratitude often thrives when opportunities for connection are created. How will your concept create new opportunities for human connection?

Since we are a large organization, and by nature of our jobs, we do not have many opportunities to interact with each other, the prototype using work email has increased the number of names and interactions I usually do not see in my inbox.

Who (specifically) will benefit from your concept, and how they will interact with it? What design considerations have you included to ensure easy and intuitive interactions? 

The concept initially impacts depleted public employees, many of whom also donate their free time to the public good. In the prototype, having all staff copied via email on gratitude expressions allowed a forum for a large staff to witness the good that we don't normally get to see and have little opportunity to share. Email allowed us to have a forum already used heavily by employees, ensuring the opportunity for passive participation with no sign up nor additional login barrier. Those who write and receive the expressions of gratitude, allow for the rest of the staff to passively benefit from witnessing them. Ideally, all members of the community benefit through the creation of physical space that invites people to sit and interact and through the boost in morale, feelings of team belonging, lowered stress levels, and pride in work. Those mental benefits should trickle to students in the form of increased energy and renewed purpose within the adults around them.

Please describe how you intend to use the prize funding, if selected as a Top Idea. Be specific.

The estimates below were for a small scale implementation, and do not include the costs of the additional labor that would be necessary to implement . PHYSICAL SUPPLIES FOR THE GARDEN: approx $750 for small scale prototype MATERIALS TO COMMEMORATE THE THANKED EMPLOYEES: approx $200 for the prototype without signs, additional $300-$500 for weatherproof signs LABOR: The many hours involved makes long-term implementation by volunteers unsustainable, which is how the prototype was run.


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Photo of Minna Kim

Hi Lauren Ito ,
I know the deadline to add to the proposal has closed, but I thought you might want to see how the garden planting turned out! Pictures and the blurb I wrote for the district newsletter are here:

Thanks and Happy Holidays!

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