On Gratitude

I love this time of year. The St Andrew’s College campus is in full bloom, and summer is just around the corner. Where did the year go? Exams, farewells and the anticipation of Christmas holidays. It’s a busy time.

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In all the haste, I wanted to share an end of year ritual that has become important to me.

Every year, I go to a Café. I stop. And I take time out, to mindfully reflect on the people I feel grateful for. I choose my favourite ink pen and write a card to them (there is something about the act of handwriting that is important). I try to thoughtfully articulate why I feel grateful. What are their strengths of character?  How are they making a difference in my life? It’s about reminding them they are living a meaningful life and making a positive impact.

I often feel gratitude but don’t always find the opportunity to properly share it. And sometimes a simple ‘thank you’ just doesn’t cut the mustard. In this increasingly busy world, I think it is important to make the time to express gratitude.

The famous Scottish novelist, A.J Cronin summed it up nicely; “Gratitude is something of which none of us can give too much. For on the smiles, the thanks we give, our little gestures of appreciation, our neighbours build their philosophy of life”.

This year, as I undertake my cafe routine, my thoughts will turn to a dear friend who is leaving St Andrew’s, Cameron Pickering. Cameron has been a colleague of mine for over ten years. He has certainly made a difference in the life of St Andrew’s. He is value added and one of life’s gems.

When I think of Mr Pickering, I appreciate his humour and clever wit. Many times, I have heard his classes in gales of laughter. His ability to tell a great story creates a sense of wonder in his lessons. Students love his eccentricities -what other teacher would have made a (signed) agreement with Mr Burrows to be able to get on the first flight to London, when Her Majesty The Queen passes?

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Mr Pickering has a zest and enthusiasm for life- for all things British, aesthetic, and ceremonial. Students and staff have benefited from his curiosity, intelligence and enviable general knowledge. But most importantly, he’s kind. He has been a good friend to a lot of us here. Many people at St Andrew’s are incredibly grateful their lives crossed paths with ‘Pickers’. I certainly am. He is a character whom hundreds of students and staff will not forget.

What is Gratitude?

Gratitude isn’t easy to define. It’s been thought of as an emotion, an attitude, a habit, a moral virtue and a personality trait.

The word gratitude is derived from the Latin work gratia, which means grace, graciousness and gratitude (depending on the context). I believe gratitude beautifully encompasses all three of these meanings.

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There are two key things about gratitude. The first is appreciation: You recognise something is valuable to you.

The second is ‘gratitude is gratis’: it’s freely given to you.  Says Professor Robert Emmons; “At the cornerstone of gratitude is the notion of undeserved merit. The grateful person recognises that he or she did nothing to deserve the gift or benefit; it was freely bestowed.”

I’ve always been curious about character and gratitude. Most people feel gratitude some of the time but there are other people that seem grateful dispositionally. These types take nothing for granted and life seems to nicely exceed their expectations. Apparently there is even a gratitude gene (CD-38)?

Gratitude is also a choice. It’s about appreciation, not expectation.

Gratitude and Well-being

Robert Emmons and Michael McCullough, from the University of California, are leading scientific experts on the topic of gratitude. In their research, participants systematically cultivate gratitude, usually by keeping a ‘gratitude journal’. The results provide evidence that expressing gratitude has tangible benefits for well-being.

Expressing gratitude is proven to strengthen relationships and social bonds. It builds positive emotions; people feel more optimistic and alive. It also has physiological and biochemical benefits; better sleep and strengthened immune systems. Martin Seligman believes that a deliberate focus on gratitude shifts our natural negativity bias. When we are grateful we focus our attention on what is going well in life.

Neuroscientific research related to gratitude is fascinating. You can read Antonio Damasio’s research from the Brain and Creativity Institute here. fMRI scans show how expressing gratitude affects the brain circuitry associated with positive emotions and moral cognition.  The exciting thing is that the more we stimulate these neural pathways, the more automatic they become.

Gratitude works as an antidote to our negative emotions.  Whenever I experience a life-is-not-fair mindset, I have learnt that returning to grace and gratitude is always the trick. When we are grateful, we focus on and appreciate the present moment. It makes us participate in life; to live in the now.

We value the virtue of gratitude at St Andrew’s College and we want our students to foster a grateful mindset. It forms the heart of our important Christian tradition. This year many of our Chapel services have focused on gratitude and all of our staff and students have passed on gratitude notes.

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As another busy school year at St Andrew’s draws to a close, I encourage you to pause and think of someone who has made a difference in your life this year.

Do you take the time out to tell them how grateful you are? Can you think of ways you can build more gratitude into your life?

Says French Novelist, Marcel Proust; “Let us be grateful for the people that make us happy, they are the charming gardeners who make our souls blossom”.

Emmons R.A, et al. (2003) Counting Blessings Versus Burdens: An Experimental Investigation of Gratitude and Subjective Well-Being in Daily Life, Journal of Personality and Social Psychology. Vol. 84, No. 2, pp. 377–89.

Fox, G. R., Kaplan, J., Damasio, H., and Damasio, A. (2015). Neural correlates of gratitude. Frontiers in Psychology, 6(1491).

Seligman M.E.P, et al. (2005) Empirical Validation of Interventions, American Psychologist. Vol. 60, No. 1, pp. 410–21.

2 thoughts on “On Gratitude”

  1. Thanks Kerry, just what i needed to read today. grateful for the sound of the cricket students practising outside my classroom window and the soft breeze of fresh air. JF

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