I am thankful. My son graduated from high school this spring, and as he prepares to head off to college, his retired first grade teacher, Jan Smith, reached out to congratulate him. Even though we moved out of the county years ago and it’s been over a decade, she tracked him down to celebrate his graduation. As we walked with him recently and talked about his imminent transition to college, my son expressed his awe and gratitude for dedicated and caring teachers like Mrs. Smith.
The influence that educators have on the lives of young people often goes unrecognized, although I am deeply grateful to them. I thanked Ms. Smith on the call last week, but why did it take so long? I always appreciated her contribution to his love of learning and socialization, but I never expressed it directly. Maybe he should have done it in advance, on the first day of his freshman year.
Don’t delay, say thank you today
It is said that hindsight is 20/20, and this is especially true for gratitude. Acknowledgments are usually shared as a result or in response to an action or gesture. What if we had the same clear vision in foresight and proactively expressed gratitude? As a school counselor, when I begin the college admissions experience with candidates and their supporters, I ask students to turn to an adult in their life and repeat two phrases: “I love you” and “Thank you.” They’re thanking their backers for years of past investment, but it’s also meant to be an early payment of thanks for all that’s to come. It lays the groundwork for an approach to the search and use experience based on a deep appreciation for future opportunities and those they will raise.
Cyclic acceptance stress
Searching for and applying to college can often feel overwhelming, judgmental, and for some, sometimes conflicting. It’s a rollercoaster for college students, cycling through the highs and lows of stress and excitement. It might look something like this:
The student feels…
… stressed about finding good students
… excited when certain schools stand out
… stressed about the essay and application
… excited when they finally hit submit
…stressed by rejection
… thrilled with their reception
…stressed about choosing a school…
… you get the idea, the entrance slide starts to wear down the rails.
Setting up search and use with an underlying attitude of gratitude allows students to frame this experience in a different light. Instead of “I have to get through this,” it becomes “I’m grateful for the privilege and opportunity to do this.” Instead of thanking family, teachers, and friends after the experience, students can cultivate constant gratitude as a mindset. It will surely make their journey more intentional, joyful and successful.
Research on the power of gratitude is hard to ignore. From healthier eating to improved mental health and everything in between, studies show that our lives—and the lives of those around us—are enriched by gratitude. It has also been shown to promote “pro-social behaviour”. For a deeper dive, read the white paper The Science of Gratitude, prepared for the John Templeton Foundation by the Greater Good Science Center (GGSC) at UC Berkeley. The Character Lab at the University of Pennsylvania also has many resources on gratitude, and Making Caring Common, a project of the Harvard Graduate School of Education, has tools for families and teachers to help cultivate gratitude in students.
The field of positive psychology includes research on gratitude as an emotion or disposition that goes beyond the act or expression of thanks. Dispositional gratitude is an approach to life that tends to focus on the positive, and studies have supported the increased well-being and satisfaction that comes from this mindset. Anxiety and frustration are not uncommon when entering college, and neuroscientific research suggests that gratitude can help students (and parents) deal with the worry and sadness that often come with the experience. It can also make happy moments much more positive.
Dacher Keltner is a professor of psychology at the University of California, Berkeley, and faculty director of the Greater Good Science Center. He is also the author of the forthcoming book “Awe: The Science of Everyday Wonder and How it can Transform Your Life.” He describes gratitude as “a sense of appreciation for the things that are given” and says that “finding gratitude not only for what has happened, what is good, but also for what is possible – and even for the inevitable things of life difficulties and disappointments—the surest paths to strength, perspective, and well-being.” Keltner adds, “In these times of increased stress, especially for young adults, this skill is even more necessary.”
Last year, the Common App essay prompts were updated to replace the previous problem-solving prompt with the following: “Think of something someone did for you that made you happy or made you happy in a surprising way. How did this gratitude influence or motivate you?” Only 3% of applicants chose this prompt out of seven different options (“topic of your choice” was the winner with 27%). We can speculate why the response rate was lower, but the truth is that gratitude is a muscle we need to develop and continue to exercise.
The University of Pennsylvania’s admissions office added a short answer prompt to its application this year, asking students to “Write a short thank-you note to someone you haven’t thanked yet and would like to acknowledge.” Applicants are also encouraged to “share this record with that person if possible and reflect on the experience.” While some have criticized the university for creating more hoops for students to jump through, I say “well done” for forcing students to step back, reflect and express gratitude.
Say it with me
“Thank you.” Whether it’s said beforehand, during the experience, or after, it’s important to express it. If you’re applying to college, identify your team—those who will support you academically, emotionally, and possibly financially. Share and show your gratitude early and often.
We should all be so lucky to have Jan Smith in our lives and/or our children’s lives. I am grateful for her influence on my son and the man he has grown into. I am also grateful in advance to the professors, administrators, and friends who will undoubtedly greatly influence his next chapter. When a new school year begins, whether it’s a freshman or senior year of college, we lead it with gratitude.