With many young adults starting life with mountains of student debt, owing a debt of gratitude can be the straw that breaks the camel’s back.
Can you remember feeling gratitude as a young adult? Maybe you were having the time of your life at a concert. Perhaps you were taking your first solo road trip and came upon a beautiful scenic vista. Maybe you had a community you felt sure of. Or maybe your received a gift to help you make ends meet; one freely given, with no strings attached.
We may instinctively know that gratitude, along with joy, love, awe, humor, and a handful of other positive emotions, adds to our health and well-being. But gratitude can be a hard emotion to access when we are struggling to obtain independence – even more so if our road to independence is blocked by isolation and overwhelm. What is the best way to foster a sense of gratitude and appreciation for the big and small gifts we receive in our young adult years? The answer to this question may be found by looking at the developmental milestones we are striving to reach in young adulthood the eternal strivings of finding independence and intimacy.
When I was twenty-two and in my last year of college my grandmother sent me a surprise gift of one hundred dollars to help me buy my textbooks. Up until that point, I had paid most of my college expenses on my own. I was a first-generation college student so guidance from my family was limited. My parents did what they could by cosigning loans, and paying for occasional living expenses. The summer before my last year of school I got a job at new restaurant that never opened. My mother must have mentioned to my grandmother that I was struggling to get through my final semesters. And so I received what seemed like an out-of-the-blue windfall.
I remember so clearly being extremely touched by this gift. It was an acknowledgment of all the hard work I had put into my education after four years of feeling like a misunderstood oddity in my family. What I don’t remember clearly is whether or not I sent a thank-you note.
If we give a gift expecting something in return, we may be setting ourselves up for disappointment at the very least, and perhaps resentment from the recipient when they realize there are strings attached.
So here is the question I have for the gift givers: Should we expect young adults to shower us with gratitude when we help them out? If we give a gift expecting something in return, we may be setting ourselves up for disappointment at the very least, and perhaps resentment from the recipient when they realize there are strings attached.
My guess is that there are many answers and strong opinions on this matter. I’m not sure where I land, but I do know that we can’t go wrong by modeling every day gratitude and appreciation in our established adult lives. And because we know that grateful living makes us happier, contented, and more joyful, we can say a silent prayer in the hope that the young adults in our lives find their own way to grateful living.
Young adults may need time to feel gratitude, they may need to have some level of independence and connection to community first.
Some life experiences need to be in our rearview mirror before we can appreciate the gift and wisdom hidden inside. Appreciation and gratitude often happen in hindsight, especially during stressful times in life. At the same time, nothing stops us from appreciating the small and not so small gifts of every day life, except for failing to stop to notice them. Young adults may need time to feel gratitude, they may need to have some level of independence and connection to community first. Paradoxically, living a grateful life can only happen in the here an now. If we can model this for the young adults in our lives, we are truly giving them a great gift.
Gratitude tips for emerging adults:
- Even though you may be in transition, notice your surroundings. What makes you feel safe? What small acts of kindness give you a sense of belonging?
- Remember that grateful living is a muscle that needs exercise just like our physical body. Practice appreciation in small ways every day. Notice how these small practices affect your mood and your outlook.
- Gratitude grows when it is shared. Share moments of gratitude with your friends.
Gratitude tips for young adult mentors:
- Can you remember a time in your young adult life when you where given a gift, only to be told how to use it? How did this make you feel? Conversely, do you remember a relative or mentor who gave you a tangible or intangible gift unconditionally?
- When working with young adults, show them that you remember what it is like to be just starting out. Share stories of times from your young adulthood where you felt a need for independence and intimacy so strong that you may have been blinded to daily gratitude and contentment.
- Model gratitude in your daily exchanges with the young adults you interact with.
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Thanks for this article, Donna. I worked for three decades as a youth advocate south of you in Dartmouth, MA. I am retired now, but I still meet for coffee with several young adults, all former clients when in grade school, and we talk about how it’s going for them as young adults now out in the world on their own. Many young adults are lucky to have the guidance of family still available, if not central in their lives, but some are out there virtually on their own with little input from more seasoned adults. These are the young adults I seem to be staying connected to. Sometimes if there’s a milestone to celebrate, like a new job, a raise, or another semester checked off, we’ll make it lunch instead. The time and minimal cost of these occasional gatherings, not to mention the joy I experience, I believe, are very helpful to these young people.