Harnessing the Power of Gratitude in Higher Ed

Did you know that by surrounding yourself with three miserable co-workers actually makes you happier?

No, that’s actually not true (and I’m sorry if this is the situation you’re in). We all go through tough times: illness, job or relationship problems, including all the ups and downs in life. It’s unfortunate but most of the time it’s inevitable.

What if I told you that you could change your situation it by changing the way you think?

I don’t mean a full personality makeover here. I want to introduce you to the topic of gratitude and how it can change your life and how we approach our relationships and work.

There’s a great reason why gratitude is becoming more and more popular among today’s organizations and people. Gratitude is known to boost motivation, create a larger sense of belonging among employees, and makes the case for increased positivity in relationships.

Are You A Gratitude Skeptic?

If you’re part of the population who thinks the concept of practicing gratitude is too good to be true, I’m here to prove you wrong.

It seems like people who practice gratitude is all they talk about.

I don’t blame them.

When we write down or express what we’re grateful for, it feels good. It’s contagious. Try sharing your smile with a stranger.

It’s hard not to smile when other humans (or animals) choose to share their smile with you, like CEO Reuben Pressman‘s dogs pictured below.

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image from www.instagram.com/basilandella

Earlier this year, a study was released on how practicing gratitude physically changes your brain. A team of researchers at Indiana University set out to explore if gratitude could spiral into other health benefits.

The researchers asked 43 individuals who had anxiety or depression to take part in the study. The researchers decided to split the group in half and assigned the first group the task of writing thank you letters to people in their lives they were grateful for over the period of three months. After the time was up, they brought the groups back together to monitor the participant’s brain activity via CAT scans.

The scientists’ findings suggested that gratitude does impact the brain in positive ways. The scanner was described as, “showing more gratitude-related brain activity,” which means nothing to us as readers, but to neuroscientists it explains that the brain can rewire itself to be happier by cultivating gratitude. During those three months the participants who wrote thank you letters had notably ‘profound’ and ‘long-lasting’ neural effects as described by researchers.

The scientists explain more about our brains and gratitude. They explain,

“The more practice you give your brain at feeling and expressing gratitude, the more it adapts to this mindset — you could even think of your brain as having a sort of gratitude ‘muscle’ that can be exercised and strengthened… the more of an effort you make to feel gratitude one day, the more the feeling will come to you spontaneously in the future.”

Another study, like this one by researchers at the University of Pennsylvania’s Wharton Business School, that shows how gratitude has an impact on the workplace.

“The researchers divided university fundraisers in two groups. The people in one group made phone calls for alumni donations in the same way they always had. The second group- assigned to work on a different day- received a pep talk from the Director of Annual Giving [before making calls] who told the people she was grateful for their efforts. During the following week, university employees who listed to her message of gratitude made 50% more fundraising calls than those who did not.”

We can take a tip or two from our team-oriented friends and colleagues who bring their team or staff together before a big day, week, or, for a lot of SA pro’s, before the academic year. They inspire teams to see their vision and strengthen their leadership roles.

For example, one of our intrapreneurs Wayne Glass participated in his own gratitude challenge:

Why Gratitude Is Important to Cultivate As a Leader

True leaders understand that you need to appreciate the people that work with you and work for you—for example, appreciating their efforts when they complete work you’ve delegated to them.

Harnessing gratitude is a great way to express a team’s shared purpose. At each milestone of a project, it’s important to recognize individual and team contributions to keep propelling the team forward. Communicating useful observations, acknowledging problems or challenges, and expressing appreciation are important in framing these as additional learning opportunities.

Practicing gratitude also leads to an increased sense of resilience.

Sheryl Sandberg, COO of Facebook, talks about what she learned about navigating life after her husband passed away. One of the topics Sandberg covers towards the end of her speech includes how we all need to include practicing gratitude and appreciation, every day.

“People who take the time to list things they are grateful for are happier and healthier. It turns out that counting your blessings can actually increase your blessings. My New Year’s resolution this year is to write down three moments of joy before I go to bed each night. This simple practice has changed my life. Because no matter what happens each day, I go to sleep thinking of something cheerful. Try it. Start tonight when you have so many fun moments to list.”

She notes that people tend to live longer, happier, healthier, lives than those who don’t practice gratitude.

Spreading Gratitude With Students

We’re a huge fan of student affairs professional Sinclair Caesar. There’s a group of us in the office who look forward to his ‘Sinclair.ity‘ weekly e-mails filled with inspiration and motivation for the coming week. It starts our week on a positive note and we often chat about actionable ways we can make the rest of our week memorable.


We know that Sinclair often provides fellow SA pro’s with inspiration and we decided to ask him what types of initiatives he plans with students.

Here are a few gratitude ideas he shared:

Notes of Kindness

Sending handmade notes to students can go a long way. They are great because they are something tangible in an increasingly digital world.

Here’s how to get started: Purchase a pack of cards or get creative and use cardstock/envelopes around the office. Create a sign-up form using Google Drive. Encourage students to sign up to receive a positive note from you or someone in your office. Have the campus post office, RA’s, RD’s, student workers or another campus representative to deliver to them personally!

Bonus: Include a question prompt in each note, “What is one thing you’re thankful for today?” You can also add a smaller envelope and blank card in each note you send, so the student can pass along good vibes to another person.

Post-Its of Gratitude

Writing down how you feel shows others’ that you put time and effort into thinking about them. How have you appreciated your colleagues or students that surround you every day? Sometimes we take these people for granted the most.

It’s important to appreciate employees, friends, and co-workers more than one day out of the year (i.e. Hall Director Appreciation Day).

Sinclair explains,

“Years ago, a co-worker put a post-it note in every student staff and full-time staff member’s office mailbox. Each note genuinely mentioned two qualities they admired in us. It was anonymous until we found out who did it.”

There are a few ways you could modify this activity and bring it to your institution. Resident assistants could put them on residence hall doors or at student employee desks. Make it your own project or bring it to your student affairs team (remember to think outside the box). How do you pitch this idea as a program? It’s simple, easy to do, and quickly catches on. Soon you’ll see uplifting post-it notes popping up around your office and in student spaces.

Need more examples of uplifting notes? Check out Operation Beautiful.

Smile Jar

Trying to get rid of sweets and increase smiles in your office? Sinclair turned his office candy jar into something much healthier.

Here’s how to get started: Write the words “Smile Jar” or “What made you smile today?” on a piece of paper and tape it to the jar or use a sharpie.

Invite people to share something positive that recently happened to them. They could be waiting to enter a meeting with a colleague or just stopping by. It only takes a few words and it’s great for busy people!

You could also tweet out the words of inspiration on social media accounts and create more positivity outside the walls of your office. Sinclair was nice enough to share templates so you can easily print them out and share with colleagues all over campus!

Creating a Culture of Gratitude Starts With You

“You become what you do most of the time.” – Tony Robbins

Here’s to taking the time to reflect in the midst of opening buildings, preparing campuses and syllabi, and forming the teams that will make for a successful academic year.

What are some gratitude initiatives you plan on implementing with colleagues or students?

How are you going to challenge yourself to demonstrate infectious optimism?

Share your thoughts and gratitude exercises with us @HelloPresence. Cheers!

Thank you to Sinclair Caesar to contributing his program ideas and gratitude initiatives for this post! We appreciate you!


Hallis, T. (2015). The magic of positivity and recognition at work. www.thepositiveedge.org/wp-content/uploads/2016/04/Positivity_Recognition_Work_Ebook_Tina_Hallis_Hoopla.pdf

(2010). www.ultimateathletemagazine.com/component/content/article/47-general/506-psychology-pep-talks


Kayley Robsham

About the author: Kayley Robsham is the former Community Engagement Manager at Presence, the complete student engagement platform. Learn how we can help get your students involved.

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