The importance of expressing gratitude is perhaps more effectively shown than it is discussed, though I hope in bringing up the relevance of gratitude, we will feel encouraged to instigate change. The practice of constantly expressing our thankfulness for the circumstances of our lives and the people in our lives is lacking, and I believe this is because we all think there isn’t an apparent need to do so. To go out of our way to express how someone’s contributions to our lives have benefitted us seems — sentimental; in a way that we are not willing to offer very often, if at all.
We choose to thank someone if we are able to directly benefit or advance some other objective. It rarely happens solely for the sake of expressing deserved thanks to another person.
I’m sure many of you are aware that expressing gratitude actually carries a multitude of health benefits like increased optimism, stronger relationships and increased positivity toward upcoming short-term and long-term trials. I don’t think I should reduce the importance of gratitude to simply a benefit to your health.
I wish to discuss its importance so that hopefully it transforms from something that you maybe just think about to something that actually becomes instinctual.
Instead of just expecting, it should be a habit to thank. I see this most beautifully practiced in younger children. I volunteer at an elementary school in Detroit every Friday, and for the entire year I have worked with the same group of about five students. Last week was my last week working with them, and they were overwhelmingly grateful for the time I had spent with them. A few students saved up some money to buy me chocolate, they wrote me poems, notes, cards — all of this as an outpour of thanks for coming in to assist in reading and writing.
Why is it that kids know to do this, but many of us who are older fail to express our praise? Children act as though they are naturally prone to express thanks, maybe because they are more dependent on the guidance and help from others. While evaluating gratitude on a larger scale, I have come to realize that some of the most privileged and most successful are also the most unwilling to give thanks. Instead, they credit themselves. They think: “I’m the reason I have made it to this place and I’m the one to thank.”
It moves me to see that children are humble enough to greet me with grace and praise simply because they want to. For them, it is instinctual.
When I was a senior in high school, I applied to be the commencement speaker for my graduation and wrote a speech that expressed this sentiment. Among the competition of all of the students who wanted to leave our senior class with some inspirational send-off, I was not selected to give my gratitude talk a go.
My speech was derived from this statement: “Before we graduate and move on to the next chapter of our lives, we have look back with appreciation and thanks to those who got us here.”
Maybe some of you have just begun your college journey. Others of you are on your way out. Maybe you’re reading this far removed from your life in college. Look at where you are right now, at this point in your life, and think about every single person who made it possible to be here. Some of the obvious figures that come to mind are parents, educators and mentors. But in further consideration, I think of many more people.
I have to consider those who maintain the facilities that make it possible for me to enjoy everything this University has to offer. The people who were willing to write me recommendation letters, which gave me the opportunity to apply to some amazing programs. People I see everyday, like my peers, who have given me advice and support, as well as friends in graduate school who constantly offer me insight to what their experiences are like, helping me to make decisions toward my own future.
While considering all who have made it possible for you to be where you are — I ask that before your gaze becomes too fixed on what is ahead, look back and consider how their contributions have allowed for your advancement.
This isn’t a ridiculous request — there are moments when we see this practice in our culture. When you watch an award show, every single person who wins something walks up to the microphone and profusely thanks everyone who helped him or her on the journey to success. If any of those individuals walked up to the microphone and said: “Thank you, I want to thank myself and my talent for winning this award,” the audience would likely be outraged. They would think: “How dare this person take such credit for their accomplishment?”
Maybe your success isn’t as publicized, but the expectation to express gratitude still exists. If you walk around thinking that you don’t owe anyone thanks, or that it isn’t necessary to express it, you are the person grabbing your trophy and thanking yourself.
Many of you are exceptional people on your way to abundant success. Don’t fool yourself into thinking you’ve reached a certain point that no longer requires you to humbly thank those who have contributed to such a life.
What I wasn’t able to say to the senior class of 2014, I will send you off with now: As you look ahead, make sure to also look back, for the people behind you are very much responsible for getting you to where you now stand.