Those of you who listen to Presence’s podcast “Will There Be Food?” may notice my rollercoaster of emotions expressed throughout the series.
I let out unapologetic cackles, gasp every time my mind is blown, and try (but always fail) to hold back tears. It has been a wild journey. Lately, the emotions I’ve been feeling include pride, exhaustion, and above all gratitude.
But gratitude can be a vulnerable thing that isn’t easy to express. Sometimes I’m afraid to feel grateful for things because I suspect that they might be too good to be true.
Other times, it can be hard to feel gratitude when I’m dissatisfied with things in life. I felt this way when I was struggling in my first professional role. I didn’t know whether I should stick it out another year or open up my job search again. I was so bogged down with these worries that I wasn’t able to recognize the blessings I already had in my life.
Gratitude can also feel weird for me when I’m around others who have suffered loss or are experiencing pain. I don’t want to come off as insensitive or look like I’m bragging about all the awesome things in my life when someone else is clearly going through a hard time.
In her Netflix special, “Call to Courage”, Brene Brown says that “when you are grateful for what you have, I understand that you understand the magnitude of what I’ve lost.” Rather than feel shame, Brene affirms that it’s important to appreciate what we have and that it’s okay to express our feelings.
There are many proven mental, physical, and psychological benefits of practicing gratitude, including increased positivity, stronger relationships, and even stronger immune systems.
Whether you are new to the game of gratitude expression or a pro at it, here are a few ways you can cultivate an attitude of gratitude.
Create a gratitude list
An easy place to start is with writing a list of everything you’re grateful for. You can use an app, a simple piece of paper, or a fancy gratitude journal. There are no rules, so no need to be embarrassed or feel anxious about this activity.
If it helps, you can start by listing five things you are grateful for and go from there. This exercise will help you slow down, reflect on the wonderful things you already have in your life, and remind you how far you’ve come.
Practice body positivity
For many of us, how we feel about our bodies varies from day-to-day. As body positive as I am in theory, sometimes I need a good reminder to block out all the negative talk in reality.
A simple practice I’ve enjoyed doing is writing empowering notes to myself about my body on my bathroom mirror with a dry erase marker or via sticky notes. You can write about anything — from powerful mantras to specific body parts that you love (ie. “thick thighs save lives”). There is no right or wrong choice for words to boost your self-esteem.
Whether it’s the first thing you see in the morning or the last thing you see at night, your mirror will remind you to love and celebrate all the things that make you you.
Participate in a gratitude challenge
If you want a more creative outlet for your attitude of gratitude, try a 30-day challenge.
PositivelyPresent.com is my favorite. Every year, creator Dani DiPirro posts 30 prompts for each day of November and encourages participants to draw, write, collage, or take photos and share their progress via social media.
With prompts related to music, beauty, seasons, and snacks, the 30-day gratitude challenge is a fun way to reflect on all the random (yet wonderful) things you’re grateful for.
Send a thank you card, email, or text
I still have all of the thank you cards, emails, and sticky notes I have ever been given since 2008. I keep them in a box called, “Meg’s Happy Box for When Things Get Sh*tty.”
Re-reading what people have written to me over the years has helped me get through some dark times and reminds me of my strength. I can attest to the power of intentional words and how motivational they can be.
And at least one SA pro agrees with me!
“I am a huge believer in the handwritten note. I always try to take the time to write notes to staff and students to recognize their efforts, as well as express my appreciation for their work and effort. I keep a stock of note cards in my desk drawer, but I also have a stock of fun sticky notes, pins, and other items I purchase to use as a way to recognize staff.”
– Shannon Overcash, Assistant Dean of Students at Dean College
Engage in long phone calls
One of my top love languages is quality time. But since I don’t live near all my friends and family, I make it a point to reconnect with them through phone calls — preferably when I have a drive that is 30 minutes or longer.
Now I know that some folx have some deep feelings about phone calls, but hear me out; catching up via text just doesn’t do it for me. I want to hear about your life in one succinct phone call rather than over the span of a few days via text.
I challenge y’all to try doing a friendly phone call the next time you have a long drive. You might be surprised by how impactful simply hearing someone’s voice can be.
This idea is for those of y’all who live far from your loved ones, don’t value quality time as a love language, or hate phone calls.
Showing gratitude can be as simple as buying your friend a cup of coffee or some other small “treat yo self” treats. For example, one of my friends just accepted a job and mentioned to me that he was going to miss the on-campus Panera at his previous institution. So, I sent him $10 to satisfy his Panera cravings.
Tiny pick-me-ups like this are always appreciated, and the receiver can enjoy the pick-me-up whenever they need it!
For any of your friends with social, political, or personal causes, this same gratitude can be expressed by making a donation in their honor.
More SA Pro Thoughts
Don’t just take it from me! Here is how a few other student affairs professionals feel about gratitude and their favorite ways of expressing it.
“Thankfulness is one of my core values that I try to express as much as possible. One of my favorite ways to show gratitude is to send thank you notes. Whether for something big or small, I believe it is so important to communicate to folks my thanks and appreciation, and I have always felt a hand-written note accomplishes that goal. While I am thankful for so many things in my life (my family, friends, repeatable fields in Presence forms) what I am most thankful for in this moment is my amazing staff. Beth, Mary, Sam, Jill, Miranda, and Jackie make showing up to work an absolute joy and I would be hopelessly lost without them.”
– Nick Spicer, Assistant Dean of Students for Campus Activities and Leadership at Susquehanna University
“I am incredibly thankful for the amazing student leaders on campus. Their selflessness, dedication to the campus community, and leadership make coming to work enjoyable each and every day. I learn so much from them and I appreciate their energy, vulnerability, and thoughtful leadership. I express gratitude with my students by trying to show up at their games or performances (ex: our opera production) and providing opportunities to recognize the hard work that they do. I never shy away from communicating how grateful and proud I am of my students. I am also thankful for a supportive team. I have been blessed with some fantastic colleagues who support, challenge, and recognize the work that I do. My supervisor in particular leads by example in showing her appreciation for our team. She always writes thoughtful thankful you letters and makes sure we take time away from work, especially after those stressful times.”
– Kimberly Newton, Student Activities Coordinator at Concordia University, St Paul
“I’m grateful for a job on a campus where I get to be creative and have my voice heard. I’m also thankful for desserts in the dining halls and a coffee shop in my office building. Outside of work, I’m thankful for my husband, family, health, and dog Olive. I try to show my gratefulness to colleagues by doing what I say I will do for them in a timely manner!”
– Kacie Otto, Victim Advocate and Violence Prevention Specialist at Marquette University
“Given the addition of our new son, Lucas, I’m especially thankful this year for family – both immediate and extended. While our home can be messy and filled with sleep-deprived or cranky folks, it’s filled with love and support amid all the chaos and stress life might present. I’ve also been trying to be more explicit in recognizing skills, contributions, and achievements of my team and colleagues. I know that matters and while it doesn’t take much effort from me, I can see they really appreciate it. I’m doing my best to keep this a priority and regular practice.”
– Joe Levy, Executive Director of Assessment and Accreditation at National Louis University