by Susanna Jones
In being asked to share my thoughts about leadership and success, I believe it particularly important to bring attention to just how helpful gratitude can be for us.
Research by Robert Emmons, the eminent psychology professor at the University of California, Davis, focused on gratitude, has shown that when we are actively grateful, we are happier, healthier, feel better, are more optimistic, and feel more connected to others.
There are aspects of gratitude that take us to a different level from happiness, aspects that I would say make the practice of gratitude deeper, more affirming, and even more important than the pursuit of happiness. Unlike happiness, which could be perceived as an individual pursuit, gratitude by definition involves more than one person or being. It requires us to look outside ourselves.
A study at the University of Virginia supported this notion. Participants who were asked to recall something good that happened to them reacted by wanting to tell others how great they felt and wanted to celebrate; they were self-focused. By contrast, those participants asked to remember something that someone had done for them wanted to share with others the other person’s kindness; their reaction was other-focused.
Because gratitude is “other focused,” it helps us to build social relations; to form friendships – in sum, to create societies through something psychologists “reciprocal altruism.” Reciprocal altruism is the principle that if someone does something nice for you, you tend to do something nice for them in return.
This “other-focused” quality of gratitude implies steps that take us beyond potentially self- focused happiness. To be grateful, we have to acknowledge another person’s gift to us. When we are grateful, we are indebted. Likewise, we may need to admit that we must depend on others. These are not conditions that everyone wants or would choose. However, if we look at them in a different light, and apply “reciprocal altruism,” we realize that these conditions encourage us to pay forward the good deeds. When we are grateful, we want to help others as we have been helped. From this perspective, gratitude implies humility. By acknowledging others’ gifts to us, by being indebted and dependent on others, we create a web of humanity connected by good deeds and gratitude. That sounds like a pleasant society in which to live.
Being grateful takes effort, particularly if we want to move from occasional feelings of gratitude to living in a state of gratefulness – moving from gratitude as an emotion to gratitude as a virtue, the virtue Cicero called “not only the greatest of virtues, but the parent of all the others.” The benefits of living in a state of gratefulness are many. As Emmons says, “grateful thinking fosters the savoring of positive life experiences and situations, so that people can extract the maximum possible satisfaction and enjoyment from their circumstances.”
My message to all of us – Let’s count our blessings! count our blessings!
Susanna Jones, Head of School, Holton-Arms School
Susanna Jones is Head of School, Holton-Arms School, in Bethesda, MD, a top-notch school, founded in 1901 that provides an exceptionally rigorous academic curriculum. Before coming to Holton-Arms, Susanna had similarly served as Head of The Ethel Walker School, another highly respected secondary school. Susanna’s background includes teaching and development work for private schools, the Union Theological Seminary and development consulting for Peggy Powell Dean & Co. As we would expect, Susanna has been involved in many significant volunteer activities and associations, including the National Association of Principals of Schools for Girls, Headmistresses of the East, Simsbury Historical Society, and serving as a board member of SPHERE and as a Trustee and in numerous other capacities for Phillips (Andover) Academy.
Susanna attended Princeton for her undergraduate degree then received two Masters degrees from Columbia. She and her husband, Robert Beguelin, live near the Holton-Arms School.
I feel privileged to have Susanna as a guest leader as she herself is a highly respected leader, dedicated to the education and growth of young women.