That all important sense of gratitude

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Dr Ann Farley, Director of Differentiated Learning

My daughter has a passion for refugee health care that is, in part, inspired by her secondary school History studies at Girls Grammar, where she learned about conflicts in Timor Leste, Rwanda, and Bosnia and Herzegovina. Now she works with amazing refugee women who have inspired her with their humanity, respect, resilience and optimism. From my perspective, the emotion that seems to permeate all their stories is a profound sense of gratitude.

Drawn from a collection of stories of refugee strength and resilience, Elizabeth’s story is all too similar to that of many refugees.

Her life was torn apart by the conflict in Sudan, her husband and many of her family killed, others disappeared. As Elizabeth fled the horrors of life in Sudan with her children, one of her young sons was shot and killed. It was too dangerous for her to stop and grieve for him. After a horrendous journey, Elizabeth arrived with her family at Kakuma Refugee Camp in Kenya where they hoped for a safe refuge. However, as a woman alone with her children in a camp of 95,000 people, their lives were constantly at risk. Elizabeth’s children were kidnapped and she was forced to hide in a small section of the camp known as the ‘Protection Area’. The family was later reunited and finally, after years of living in fear for their lives, Elizabeth and her family were resettled to Australia under the Women at Risk program.

Elizabeth is a strong woman, a leader who has shown incredible determination to succeed in Australia. She has worked hard over the years to support and protect her family and is making enormous contributions to Australia. Elizabeth is an inspiration to other women who are still fighting for survival (Adapted from Eckert, 2008).

In a country full of conflicting reports relating to refugees and asylum seekers, women like Elizabeth are role models not only of perseverance and resilience, but also of gratitude. Considering their past experiences, how can these women remain so positive and optimistic? For what are they grateful?

There is so much to learn from their approach to life. Marilyn Lacey has worked in refugee camps and with resettlement agencies for many years and makes the following observation:

Refugees know that everything is a gift. They have lost so much. Just being alive is a gift. Having a friend is a gift. Having a loaf of bread is a gift. Tenneh (a refugee that was being resettled) brims with gratitude, and despite all her losses, she is happy (Lacey, 2011).

We are undoubtedly a lucky School community, but should we have a greater sense of gratitude? In an article in The Courier-Mail late last year Kathleen Noonan asked a group of deputy principals from all over Queensland about their biggest problem in their classrooms. The answer was overwhelmingly, students with an overblown sense of entitlement. Noonan went on to question where this originates and I then have to ask if we can do anything to prevent our students from falling into the temptation of expecting everything ‘on a platter’.


Unsurprisingly, research has shown that a sense of gratitude cultivated and experienced by all members of a community has benefits on multiple levels. McKibben (2013) suggests that gratitude can lead to higher grades and life satisfaction amongst students. It can foster an increased sense of hope and trust in others and fuel a desire to give back to the community … all essential elements of an effective classroom community. She refers to studies conducted by Bono at California State University. After analysing survey responses from 700 students aged 10 to 14, he reported to the American Psychological Association that grateful teens are more likely than their less grateful peers to be happy, less likely to abuse drugs and alcohol, and less likely to have behaviour problems at school. He proposes that gratitude may be strongly linked with life-skills such as cooperation, purpose, creativity and persistence and, as such, gratitude is a vital resource that parents, teachers, and those who work with young people should foster.

This is not to say that achieving a sense of gratitude is always easy. When life is happy and we are feeling content, gratitude comes easily. Emmons (2013) highlights the importance of recognising the difference between ‘feeling grateful’ and ‘being grateful’.

Being grateful is a choice, a prevailing attitude that endures and is relatively immune to the gains and losses that flow in and out of our lives. When disaster strikes, gratitude provides a perspective from which we can view life in its entirety and not be overwhelmed by temporary circumstances.

It is important to be realistic, not to ignore pain, suffering and unpleasant experiences but to recognise that the development of a grateful mindset can provide us with the capacity to shape the way these experiences are going to impact our lives. Howells (2013) argues that a sense of gratitude is most valuable to both the individual and the community when it prompts us to ‘give back out of acknowledgement for what we receive’. Elizabeth’s story is but one example of how overcoming challenges with gratitude can provide the strength and insight to support others in the community.

Why do some people cultivate gratitude, resilience and support rather than frustration, despondency and resentment? Howell suggests that resentment and gratitude cannot co-exist and notes:

Our expressions of gratitude unite us with others and encourage us to recognise, celebrate differences, and acknowledge the efforts of others. Resentment on the other hand leads us to reject, divide, ignore, lament, blame, backbite and criticise (2013).

If there is so much to be gained by developing a sense of gratitude, what can we do to encourage its development? In an address delivered to a group of high school students, Marilyn Lacey (2011) warned of the limitations of ‘being on top of everything but not really immersed in anything’. Lacey suggested that to live life to the full the students need to do three things: the first two were to ‘get engaged in your passions’ and ‘get lost in the different’ but the third was to ‘get gratitude’. She explained the benefits of expressing appreciation for everything that comes their way — everything: the heartaches as well as the triumphs, the setbacks as well as the successes.

Ryan (2009) describes gratitude as a flashlight that lights up what is already there. ‘You don’t necessarily have anything more or different, but suddenly you can actually see what it is. And because you can see, you no longer take it for granted.’ As teachers and parents we are privileged to share in the experiences of our students and children. It is inspirational to see them engage with the wider world, develop passions and take risks, but it is even more wonderful to see them become adults who appreciate others, never take what they have for granted, and are grateful for whatever they may face. I see this in the attitudes and career of my own daughter.

There is something slightly intangible that I have always loved about travelling. I love experiencing different cultures, meeting new people, but it is more than that. I’m not sure exactly what that something is, but I think part of it is recognizing our common humanity despite our differences. This now makes up part of most of my days and I find great joy in it. I think it is part of what drew me to general practice more generally and what particularly draws me to refugee health. I love working with my patients to overcome the challenges refugee health care poses. It is so important that we are all able to effectively access quality health care. Finally, I love the warmth and resilience of the patients I work with. They are endlessly inspiring (R. Farley, personal communication, 2 March  2013).

There is a lesson for a teacher and a mother here. Encourage your students and children to be grateful for those experiences life affords, not as an entitlement but as an opportunity.


Bono, G. (2012). Searching for the developmental role of gratitude: A 4-year Longitudinal Analysis. Symposium presentation at The 120th Annual Convention of the American Psychological Association. Retrieved from the American Psychological Association website:

Eckert, R. (2008). Celebration of refugee lives: Stories of strength and resilience. Sydney, Australia: Australian National Committee on Refugee Women and Centre for Refugee Research.

Emmons, R. (2013). How gratitude can help you through hard times. Retrieved from the Greater Good Science Centre website:

Howells, K. (2013). The role of gratitude in helping school leaders strengthen relationships. Retrieved from Perspectives on Educational Leadership, Australian Council of Educational Leadership website:

Lacey, M. (2011). Get engaged, get lost, get gratitude. Retrieved from Saint Joseph’s College website:

McKibben, S. (2013). Tapping into the power of gratitude. Education Update, 55(11), November 2013

Noonan, K. (2013, November 16). Watering at dusk is a tonic. The Courier-Mail.

Ryan, M.J. (2009). Attitudes of Gratitude. Berkeley, CA: Conari Press.

Published 28 March 2014