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Speeches & Media

Power of Gratitude

Feeling truly grateful—and expressing it—multiplies its effect

Kathleen McCartney, Smith Alumnae Quarterly, Summer 2015

During this season of graduations and reunions, of leavetakings and returns, I have found myself thinking a lot about gratitude—for me, one of the essentials of a life well lived. Its role in my life is captured in a message from my friend Mary Jane.

Mary Jane served with me on the faculty at the University of New Hampshire, she in family studies and I in psychology. In January 2012, she surprised me with a letter. I wondered why she had chosen to write to me when we usually communicated via emails, texts and phone calls. It wasn’t my birthday, and Christmas had just passed.

Inside the envelope was a small note card with a blue seashell at the top. Her note began, Hey Partner, a term of endearment we reserve for each other. Her letter read:

My recent work on gratitude includes periodic notes to those for whom I feel so fortunate to have in my life. You are at the top of my list—even though our shared time is so rare. I never feel that the time lapses have whittled away one ounce of love and admiration I feel for you. When we are together, I instantly feel a sense of grounding; I feel important; I feel loved. Thank you for continuing to make the effort to stay connected. I am so grateful to call you “my soul sister”—and to feel it.

I felt honored by Mary Jane’s words. It isn’t often that a friend really shares just how much you mean to her. Then I remember thinking, what is “work on gratitude”?

When I called Mary Jane a few days later, I asked her to describe what she meant. She told me that she had decided to spend some time every day expressing her gratitude. She wanted to make it a practice.

We all choose activities to practice with the goal of developing skills. We might practice a sport, a musical instrument, photography or, for those of us who are religious, prayer or meditation. Mary Jane described her practice as a road map for living. She said that she was constructing a world full of what is here and good, rather than what is missing in her life. This new framing, she told me, was leading to a more joyful existence.

After our phone call, I decided that I would begin to practice daily gratitude. That evening, right before bed, I said to my husband, Bill, let’s think about what we are grateful for.

It’s hardly surprising that we started with family, the source of the greatest love for so many of us. Our list of people quickly grew to other members of our family, our friends and strangers.

Several years ago, on a particularly bad day at work, Bill joked with me, “Well, do you think you can find anything to be grateful for today?” I smiled as I confessed, “I guess I am grateful for the glass of wine I am drinking now.” Then I paused and added, “And I know that soon I will be grateful that this day is over.” That brought a laugh from Bill. I love making him laugh, so that was another good moment in an otherwise hard day.

A turning point came for me when I realized that I should be truly grateful for difficult days. This occurred when I was reading a book of poems by Mary Oliver, one of my favorite poets because there is such wisdom in her words. In her poem “The Uses of Sorrow,” the author is given a “box full of darkness.” Only much later does she understand that the darkness, too, is “a gift.”

I pondered her words and began to reflect on what I already knew to be true from my experience, namely that personal growth had come from some of the hardest events in my life: a miscarriage, not getting a job I had wanted, the end of a marriage, my mother’s death.

And what of the smaller events? A harsh remark from a colleague, an angry comment from the driver in the next car, an argument with a loved one? Could these be gifts, too? Could I use a box full of darkness when presented to me?

The answer is sometimes—when I am my best self. Sometimes when people are unkind, I work hard to take their perspective and to stay even so that we can learn from one another.

There is so much at Smith for which to be grateful. Recently, an alumna from the class of 1986 pledged $10 million to support Smith’s highest priority: student scholarships. Her gift is among the largest ever to a women’s college. It will support the education of thousands of women for years to come.

When I talked to the donor about what inspired her gift, she said she was simply grateful for her Smith education and wanted to ensure that other women had access to the same exceptional experience she did.

This is the power of gratitude: It begins with one person and extends to thousands over time. In reflecting on this gift and the impact it will have on the lives of our students, I am reminded of something Alice Walker once said: “Thank you is the best prayer that anyone could say.”

So, I say thank you to the alumnae of Smith for all that you do for each other, for Smith and for the world.

Adapted from remarks delivered at Ivy Day 2015.