President Morris standing in front of campus

The Practice of Gratitude

Message from the President

Kathryn A. Morris

I am fond of saying that one should begin with gratitude. 

Indeed, the feeling of gratitude has been my predominant emotional experience during the months since I was announced as president-elect and in the 100 days or so since I officially began my post as president. Hundreds of people, including trustees, students, faculty, staff, parents, alumni, and members of the North Country community, have welcomed my family and me, and I have read (and saved) your emails, cards, and letters. I have seen in action what you assured me was special about St. Lawrence, the Laurentian traditions that foster deep and meaningful connections, and the overwhelming evidence that St. Lawrence is a place where good ideas come to life. I am honored and grateful to be a part of such a special community

My practice of gratitude dates back to my graduate school days at the University of Texas at Austin, nearly 30 years ago. For me, graduate school was not always a happy time. I had grown up in a liberal arts environment, attended a liberal arts college, and knew one day my career would entail teaching and mentoring undergraduate students in the liberal arts. And yet, the pathway to that career required me to pursue a doctorate at a research-intensive university. There, I found that teaching at the undergraduate level was often viewed as a necessary evil. Few people talked about the liberal arts, other than to demean them in favor of professionally oriented majors. For the first time in my life, I struggled. I was out of my academic element.

Quite by accident, to help myself cope, I decided to focus intentionally on things for which I was grateful. Each day, in my planner—which, at the time, was a spiral-bound notebook rather than the electronic calendar I keep today—I wrote down three things for which I was grateful. I did this consistently, day after day. It wasn’t hard to find something that engendered gratitude—watching Thursday night “Must-See TV” with friends, eating at one of Austin’s Tex-Mex establishments, or hiking in the Texas Hill Country. 

Some days, however, gratitude was harder to find. I chuckle every time I read the entry that said, “I’m grateful that my T-shirt is soft cotton and not itchy.” That was clearly a bad day! Nevertheless, finding things for which to feel gratitude made me a happier person and revealed plenty of good in my life, even though graduate school was not my happiest time.

In the years since that time, my practice of gratitude has continued. At times, I’ve recorded my reasons to be thankful in a gratitude journal. At other times, I have thought about the things I am grateful for at the end of each day before going to sleep. In recent years, I have made a point of beginning many public speaking engagements reflecting on and sharing expressions of gratitude. 

Although my original practice of gratitude functioned as a graduate school coping mechanism, my understanding of the power of gratitude has developed further in recent years. In 2019 and 2020, I was fortunate to prepare and teach a new course: Determinants of Well-Being. As stated in the syllabus, the goal of the course was to “explore a cross-section of some of the most significant determinants of well-being through the lens of the biopsychosocial perspective, a scientific approach that focuses on the interplay of biological, psychological, and social factors.” 

Among the topics covered in the course was gratitude. Together, my students and I studied the work of Robert A. Emmons, a psychologist at the University of California-Davis, which focuses on the impact of gratitude on psychological well-being. Emmons’ work shows that people randomly assigned to complete weekly gratitude journals reported greater happiness than people in the various control conditions. As a mother of two, I was delighted to learn that mothers were among the things for which participants expressed the most gratitude. 

As a class, we also studied the work of Wendy Berry Mendes, a psychologist at the University of California–San Francisco, whose research demonstrates that people who practice gratitude have better health outcomes, including better sleep and lower blood pressure when confronted with stress. 

Using what we had learned from the scientific study of well-being, we practiced gratitude throughout the course, regularly recording and discussing things for which we were grateful. Students ended the course by writing a letter to thank someone who supported their endeavors as college students. Although this course covered many topics—and many behaviors students learned about and practiced throughout the course—gratitude was probably the one that resonated most. In the wake of the COVID-19 pandemic shutdowns in March 2020, students reached out through emails and text messages to express their appreciation for having learned the power of gratitude as a simple and effective coping mechanism in the course. 

Working with young people growing into themselves and figuring out how they will create a better future is energizing, challenging, and fun. I am grateful to be grounded in liberal arts higher education, making deep and meaningful connections, and helping to bring great ideas to life. Continuing my journey at St. Lawrence University is a gift. Thank you, again, for the warm welcome to the Laurentian community. 
With gratitude,

For those interested in learning more about the scientific study of gratitude or psychological well-being in general, you may want to check out the online Greater Good Magazine, the edX course, The Science of Happiness, or the Coursera course, The Science of Well-Being.