As pollution, terrorism, hunger, cruelty and poverty continue to challenge our world, a new initiative at Cornell University offers a simple strategy to buoy the spirit of the campus community and simultaneously to foster change in a troubled world. It is called the Gratefulness Project.
When the Cornell-affiliated Center for Religion, Ethics and Social Policy (CRESP) officially adopted the Gratefulness Project earlier this month, the university became the first campus to embrace the international nondenominational, apolitical, nonprofit program in character development.
"Gratefulness is more than being thankful. It is an attitude and simple practice that builds on a virtue approved by every religion and organization," explains Brother David Steindl-Rast, a Benedictine monk with a Ph.D. in psychology from the University of Vienna, a world-renowned lecturer and author of many books, notably Gratefulness, the Heart of Prayer (Paulist Press).
The goal of the Gratefulness Project is to raise public awareness of the benefits of practicing gratefulness for personal growth and social change. Gratefulness, as defined by the project, "is the spontaneous response of every human heart to life, goodness, truth and beauty; it is at the heart of every religion and spiritual tradition."
"The burgeoning field of positive psychology convincingly demonstrates that a reawakening of gratitude results in increased health and well-being, philanthropy, civic responsiveness and Earth stewardship," says Jonathan Back, Cornell '71, the CRESP gratefulness coordinator. Back is working with Cornell students as well as a team of Park scholars at Ithaca College to produce a multimedia public awareness campaign to engender reflection on gratitude and to inspire beneficial personal, local and global outcomes. He said the Cornell initiative also includes a prototype for other campuses to follow, a middle school curriculum and scientific research to explore the efficacy of grateful practice with Cornell faculty. Whether it will sponsor seminars, practical community outreach, retreats or other activities will be determined by the students who become active.
The practice of gratefulness is simple and immediately effective, says Steindl-Rast, who two years ago founded a noncommercial, virtual community in more than 100 countries that shares ideas, essays, tips and dialogues about the investigation, practice and dissemination of gratefulness via http://www.gratefulness.org .
"You practice gratefulness, for example, by simply making a daily mental list of what you are grateful for, of seeking opportunity for joy or kindness in any given moment and of practicing awareness to counter walking through life in a daze. By doing so, you will immediately see the effect," says Steindl-Rast, a former Thorpe lecturer and postdoctoral fellow at Cornell, winner of the American Book Award, the Martin Buber Award and a 2003 nominee for the prestigious Templeton Prize. "These practices foster an attitude of keeping the goodness of the world flowing, of receiving that goodness with open arms and then giving it out -- that's the key to happiness," he says.
"The Gratefulness Project has the potential to uplift people's spirits and strengthen the morale of the Cornell community," says Anastasia Uglova, a sophomore from Queens, N.Y., majoring in government and co-director of Ivy Associates, a Cornell, student-run arm of the Public Relations Student Society of America. Ivy Associates is launching a major public awareness campaign to make the campus and local community aware of the importance -- and power -- of practicing gratefulness.
The attitude of gratefulness is an antidote to stress and fear, says Back, as well as a way for students to develop a sense of appreciation and glean a better understanding of themselves, their aspirations and their role as caring global citizens. Having Cornell students committed to this initiative is particularly exciting, he says, because each one of them represents a powerful agent of change for the future.
"We are hoping that people will take gratefulness at face value and not expect to find any ulterior motives except just that: gratefulness. In the tradition of the movie 'Pay It Forward,' the Gratefulness Project gives students reasons to be grateful and inspires them to carry forth this positive attitude throughout the day, infecting others and creating a happier community," adds Uglova. "Campus spirit is strong, and student sentiment and activism is very abundant. In such an environment, gratefulness should find itself a likely partner."
"CRESP's mission is to seek the participation of individuals in fostering vital and caring communities to provide a foundation for a world of peace, mutual understanding and respect for all life," says Anke Wessels, executive director of CRESP. "To that end, we support innovative approaches to social transformation. The Gratefulness Project is an innovative model for personal and social transformation. We think, therefore, that this project is a wonderful match with CRESP's mission and its basic values."