We recently received a letter from a thoughtful, seventeen year-old student of ours, and it got us thinking. His beautiful and heartfelt note detailed all the specific things he was grateful for and why his year with us was special. I’ve always known him to be a particularly happy kid, someone who is always satisfied and enjoyable to be around. In a culture where we say ‘thank yous” like an involuntary reflex, his sincerity and warmth stood out incredibly.
As I reread his words many times over, I couldn’t stop thinking about the power of his thank you and the joy it brought to our whole team. When I began to reflect on gratitude, I wondered how often it is that the rest of us are pausing to mindfully and intentionally convey our appreciation for others and our surroundings.
Most of us are aware of the importance of saying thank you. As an educator, I’ve been following recent research in the study of wellbeing for many years now, and gratitude continues to come up as an essential element of living a fulfilled life. Dr. Martin E.P. Seligman, often cited as the father of modern positive psychology, ran a study on happiness interventions and compared the results to a control group who wrote weekly about childhood memories. The strongest of the interventions, which resulted in the
highest immediate boost in participants’ happiness index, was when the individuals wrote and hand delivered a sincere thank you note to a person in their lives who is rarely thanked for their efforts or kindness. The benefits of this one act of gratitude lasted for over a month. In a culture where we live as though nothing is ever good enough, the significance of this could not be more relevant.
Too often we hear comments along the lines of, “I’ll have wasted all my time studying if I don’t get at least a 34 on the ACT” or “what was the point of being the captain of the team if I don’t get into a highly ranked college.” This kind of thinking invalidates not only the progress that has been made and all that has been accomplished in between, but it also inadvertently discredits all those who have helped us get where we are now, even if we haven’t reached the end goal yet. Especially for teens living in a society where clear definitions of success are based on markers like test scores, college rankings, and GPA, it’s
easy to forget to be proud of the smaller steps that are taken. If we don’t take the time to thank those around us for their contributions to our lives, how do we ever begin to understand how to thank ourselves?
The idea of thanking ourselves seems paradoxical, but gratitude is an invitation to reflect on the goodness in our lives, both externally and internally. It celebrates both accomplishment and especially character, and it reminds us of all the ways that we are deeply connected to the community that surrounds us. Positive psychologists refer to this awareness of our personal belonging to something greater than ourselves as transcendence, and we best understand this through acknowledging what we have contributed to our communities and what our communities have given to us. Verbally affirming and thanking others not only draws our collective awareness to those connections, but it also sets an example and foundation to everyone around us. This becomes even more important when we have kids and peers looking up to us.
Not only did our student’s letter make our day and perhaps our year, but the power of his thank you left us all reminded of transcendence, that deep connection we feel to those around us if only we spend the time to draw our awareness to it. He’s the kind of person who exudes brightness and pure love of life, and we can’t help but think that it’s certainly his gratitude that has a lot to do with it.
“Cultivate the habit of being grateful for every good thing that comes to you, and to give thanks continuously. And because all things have contributed to your advancement, you should include all things in your gratitude.” - Ralph Waldo Emerson