Graduation time is here again. Over the next few weeks, undergraduate students around the country will be donning caps and gowns and attending commencement ceremonies where they will be awarded their degrees after four (or more) years of classes. At many of these ceremonies, famous and not-so-famous speakers will talk about the meaning of graduation and what life in the world beyond the ivied halls and walls of academe will be like, with its challenges as well as pleasures.
As I sat with my faculty colleagues yesterday during my college's graduation ceremony, listening to the name of each and every graduate being read (a charming, if sometimes long, tradition), I had a slightly different thought. What should psychology majors, newly minted with their bachelor's degree, think about during this important ceremony? Let's face it: Few people really become immersed in the meaning and meter of graduation speeches, which range between being too trite in the "wind-beneath-my-wings" sense or very abstract, as in the "find-a-way-to-serve-all-of-humanity" sense. The day itself is fraught with a mixture of excitement and anxiety. What's next? Will I find employment? Will I like graduate school? Will I succeed? Will I ever see these friends again outside of some distant college reunion? And most dreadful of all: How will I cope with living with my parents again? I don't want to add to the emotional uncertainty on this most auspicious of days, but I do want to urge some reflection: Why not think of graduation as a time for gratitude?
As many graduating psychology majors know, expressing gratitude refers to giving thanks to another or others who have rendered a kindness or delivered a direct benefit. But gratitude is also an emotion, the feeling that something good has happened due to the intervention of someone else. Although the "someone else" is usually another person (Mom, Dad, close friend, sibling, roommate), it could be a more supernatural presence, which allows room for religious feelings (certainly, we may well imagine that at least once in four years the divine was invoked during some tense examination).
But what's the link between gratitude and graduation? No matter how you parse it, receiving a college education is still a great privilege. After all, most Americans do not have a college degree nor have they taken college-level courses. Joining the ranks of the college educated is a time for sober (not somber) reflection as well as popping the champagne cork. I think psych majors who are graduating this month should obviously express and feel gratitude towards all those who made their educational journey to date possible. The people who made college possible, either through encouragement, monetary resources, or both, should be thanked in a sincere way for this kindness (yes, even that loan officer is deserving of a positive thought).
But I don't think the list stops with tangible goods-what about gratitude to people who helped in other ways across the four years? Faculty members may only be doing their jobs as teachers, but if they opened new worlds of ideas (and they should have), then thinking grateful thoughts about them is a reasonable thing to do. Although it is their job to profess about knowledge, many go beyond the minimum responsibility to take students to new places intellectually.
Feeling appreciation for the friends one has made and shared during one's college years is also a good idea. For many, the most important learning that takes place during college happens outside the classroom (note that I am not talking fun and games here, but the importance of genuine human relationships and acquiring the ability to relate to people who become one's substitute family for a time). Gratitude, too, seems to be a reasonable response if students take the time to think about the unsung individuals who make a college run-the administrators and support staff, the grounds keepers and the cafeteria workers, the coaches and trainers, the campus police-all those people who help to create an attractive, safe, secure, and nurturing place for learning to flourish (and who pick up the mess, including all those beer cans). To be sure, they are paid for their efforts (no doubt not enough), but their often-quiet duties are easily overlooked. If a graduate's gratitude is not said or felt now, it likely never will be, so why not grab the opportunity?
What are the benefits of, well, being gracious and grateful? People who have grateful personalities are agreeable to be around. They tend to be emotionally stable and self-confident. They show less narcissism than others (in this day and age, always a good thing), and are not as materialistic as other people can be. At present, psychologists are not sure how people come to be grateful and why some are more disposed to expressing and feeling gratitude than others. Yes, gratitude is a trait-some of us have it in plenty and others don't-but it is also a state, which means it is accessible to all of us. To be grateful simply entails acting in ways that express gratitude-with luck and effort, genuine feelings will follow.
So, my message to this year's host of graduates is to pause for a bit amidst the celebration on the green and leafy quadrangle or before the walk across the stage to collect that well-deserved diploma. You may never pass this way again, so leave a warm feeling in your wake. Although in a way your graduation is all about you, in another way it isn't-it's all about others-and not just your fellow graduates. Think about whom you should thank and then do it. If you can't do it directly, do it in your head. Besides benefitting others, you will benefit, too.