If you’ve been keeping up with spiritual trends or the recent positive psychology literature, you’ve probably noticed an uptick in the usage of the word gratitude. Religious leaders and psychologists alike recommend keeping a daily journal of things we are grateful for and appreciate, from the feel of the spring sun on your skin to the office hours meeting that saved your latest p-set grade.
Among the countless things that we have to be grateful for, perhaps the most important is the people who we depend on to teach us, inspire us, console us, and lift us to our full potential. Some of these people are professors, some are mentors, and some are peers. Regardless of who you put on that list, there is someone here at Stanford – probably many someones – who have helped you arrive at this moment.
You’re probably already aware of this, and already know that there are many people around you who you appreciate internally. The question is not whether or not we feel gratitude, but whether or not we express it to the people we value most – whether those people are tenured faculty members or our next-door neighbors.
I think most of us can agree that we don’t express all of our appreciation to all of the people who matter to us. In fact, we probably only express a fraction of the gratitude we feel, and could reasonably be much more grateful to others. I don’t think this is because we are ungrateful or uncaring. Rather, I think many of us struggle to decide when it’s appropriate to express gratitude, and when it would be awkward or “too much.” Should you really write a letter to a professor or a kid a couple doors down? Is it too much to stop a TA in the hall a quarter later to thank them for their help in office hours?
I will take the radical position and say that you should always express appreciation, no matter how weird, delayed or irrelevant it may seem now. I didn’t always feel this way; there was a time when I would have balked at the idea of writing a letter to someone I hadn’t seen in a year to thank them for their positive impact on my life, of all things. I believed there were boundaries to the normalcy of gratitude.
Perhaps there are boundaries, but as a senior in high school, I broke them. I went to a local high school through junior year, but for a variety of reasons left the school to do an online high school program for senior year. I didn’t have the best relationship with my high school, and I only went back to visit when my younger brother forgot his lunch at home and I had to go bring it to him. I went completely AWOL, and never spoke to anyone – I mean truly anyone – from my grade after leaving.
Sometime that April, 10 months after I’d last attended classes at my high school, I decided to do something radical, something that would stretch my soul a bit. Online school was monotonous and solitary, and I wanted to re-engage with people my age. So I wrote down a list of 10 students who, for large or tiny reasons, had made my time in high school a little bit brighter. I wrote each student a two-page, handwritten letter about how, many months and years later, I still remembered their kindness and generosity. Then I found their addresses in the school’s directory and mailed the letters to their homes, most of which I’d never seen.
Not all of the students got in contact with me afterwards, but a few of them did. One of them said she cried when she read it, and then showed it to her mother, who also cried. Another said it was one of the nicest things she’d ever received. A third texted me right away to see how I was doing. Weird as it must have been to receive a letter from me, a distant acquaintance, they were all touched to be recognized and remembered positively, especially for the little things they’d done, like simply saying hello in the hallways.
Since then, I’ve made a much more active effort to appreciate people. For me, this is best done through writing; I’ve written letters to both students and professors here who I appreciate, all of whom (including the professors) have reached out to me to thank me for the recognition. Because here’s the thing: being appreciated is one of the greatest honors and highest pleasures of the human experience. No, it doesn’t cause a crazy adrenaline rush, but being appreciated helps people remember the goodness and connectedness of humanity. I’m hard-pressed to think of many things more intrinsically heartwarming than that.
So write a letter. Say something, even if it’s months delayed. Make the extra effort even when it’s awkward or ill-timed. No one will ever be annoyed with you for appreciating them (if they are, send me an email and I’ll revise my view). Gratitude is good for them, good for you and good for mankind as a whole. So, whether someone helped you an hour ago or a year ago: say thanks.
Contact Avery Rogers at averyr ‘at’ stanford.edu.