Gratitude is Good for You

In anticipation of Memorial Day, the main lounge of Allison Residential Community transformed into a writing center for residents to come in, take a break, eat falafel, catch up with their neighbors, and practice gratefulness by thanking veterans for their service. Students could unwind, share some laughs, and—without necessarily knowing it—improve their own well-being by decorating cards with a wide array of markers alongside Rifka Cook, the Faculty-in-Residence at Allison Residential Community, and Kathryn Melendez, Residence Director for the South Area.

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Attendees shared what they hope the veterans can take away from their letters. After writing an impressive 15 letters, Michael-Ellen Walgen, a first-year student in the School of Communication, said “I hope that it’s not only something that brightens their day, but that also shows that people think of them and they still value and matter.”

“I don’t think about the military everyday, even though they’re always out there, protecting us and keeping us safe and I think it just made me recognize that a little more. It made me feel more connected,” reflected Benjamin Rosenberg, a first-year student in Medill. “I hope this makes the veterans feel very happy, and that they don’t expect it,” added Professor Cook.  

The plentiful stack of letters, some embellished with hearts and others with flowers, were mailed to the Edward Hines Jr. Veterans Administration Hospital. This event is a larger part of Cook’s goal “to give thanks to everyone,” and the first in a new series of events expressing gratitude that Cook and Melendez are launching for the upcoming year that Allison’s 2018-2019 residents can look forward to. Cook wants all Northwestern undergraduates she is connected to—whether residents of Allison or students in her Spanish courses—to take a moment to think about what they can be appreciative for. Cook has been thinking along these lines for some time. Earlier in the year, she and Melendez organized a luncheon to honor Jesus “Jesse” Consing so Allison residents could honor all he does for the community.

These trends in Allison align with the evolving theory and practice of positive psychology and coincided with an annual tradition in Residential Services. For this year’s Gregg A. Kindle Distinguished Lecture, Residential Life welcomed Dr. Tim Bono of the Department of Psychological & Brain Sciences at Washington University in St. Louis. He teaches about and does research in the emerging field of positive psychology, often with a focus on college student development. In two different talks (one for staff and faculty and one for student leaders), Bono emphasized the importance of routinizing reflection and action related to gratitude. He explained how researchers have found demonstrable benefits for individuals who take a moment to express thanks--even if they cannot do so face-to-face and have to rely on a phone call or even just a voicemail. Bono’s recommendation to practice the fundamentals of positive psychology had an impact on attendees at his lectures. It is heartening to know that faculty and staff at Northwestern are already acting along these lines to enhance the lives of students residing on campus.

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“I think that gratefulness is something that should be encouraged and is good not only for the people that we are thanking, but for the people showing that gratitude,” said Walgen.

The Allison letter-writing event had quite the turnout and students could be seen in every corner of the room chatting with friends or making new ones. “We really just wanted to promote gratefulness and a lot of students seem like they’re really cheering up from being here. Rifka had noticed that students had been feeling kind of stressed and down. We wanted students to focus on the things that bring them joy and positivity,” said Melendez.

“This makes me feel wonderful,” said Cook as she adoringly smiled back at her residents enjoying themselves. Little does Cook know that she alone already brings so much positivity to Allison residents.

As both Cook and Melendez love to keep an air of mystery, they promised a day of friendship celebration near Valentine’s Day 2019, but said residents will have to stay tuned for what other exciting events they have planned for next year!