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  • Reverend James Squire

Want To Get Into Penn?



Penn has a new wrinkle in their admissions process to be admitted to their university. It is the gratitude letter. Each student who is applying for entrance must write a letter to someone who they are grateful for in their life. If their chosen person is available, they must deliver it directly to the individual that they have chosen. Then they must reflect on the whole experience as well in their essay.


Penn did not mention in the article about the origin of their new admission essay. You should know that it is a home-grown product in one of the courses that is taught there by Marty Seligman and his staff. Marty is the founder of Positive Psychology. One of the exercises that his classes did was the “gratitude letter” where they did what the admissions office at Penn is requiring those who apply to the university to do as an essay in their process. It’s a win/win requirement!


Marty is a former president of the American Psychological Association who became famous by treating depression as “learned helplessness.” In his experiments he gave electric shocks to dogs and provided no way to escape. This caused the dogs to just give up even when he provided a path forward. What Einstein is to physics, Seligman is to psychology because he provided a method known as positive psychology that could, among other things, alleviate depression. In essence, he made the point that psychology to date was about making depressed people less depressed. He wanted more for humanity so he created a seismic shift in the field of instead of working to discover what is wrong with people, he looked at ways that people can see what is right with them and thrive.


Marty says that the idea came when he was gardening with his five years old daughter and she was digging and singing. He thought she was whining so his daughter challenged him that she would give up whining if he would give up being a grouch. As the fates should have it, that daughter and her sister became students that I taught in ethics. Because of his children Marty and I shared the same perspective, and he took me under his wing as I was teaching the very thing that he founded in a unit on psychology in my ethics class. We became colleagues and friends. Thanks to Marty I was welcomed into the group of thought leaders in this area of positive psychology at a conference at Princeton. The leaders in various aspects of positive psychology included; Tal Ben Shahar, Professor of Positive Psychology at Harvard (900 students signed up for his course which made it the most popular course in the history of Harvard.); Barry Schwartz, Professor Psychology at Swarthmore College Dr. Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi, Founder of Flow and Professor at the University of Chicago. It was a memorable experience. My wife and I took an online positive psychology course at Yale which was a meaningful way to deal with the Pandemic.


Today Positive Psychology is the most popular course at Harvard and Yale where the course has to be taught in large theaters to hold the hundreds of students who apply to get in. So why did this course of study thrive at these two elite universities? First, it is not feel-good soft science. The discipline has produced research to help all of us become happier as 50% of happiness is genetic, but that means that we have 50% to work with to create happiness in our lives.


The gratitude Letter was one of the earliest exercises to help people to be happy. Positive Psychology is not the Hollywood version of pleasure as happiness as that is temporary, but through new understanding, one of which is having purpose, meaning, God, and anything to commit to outside of self is what is important. It gives enduring happiness that was promised to us as a goal by our founding fathers, the pursuit of life, liberty, and happiness.


Gratitude is where positive psychology, ethics, and theology have direct connections to one another.


The importance of gratitude opened many eyes to the benefit of this aspect of spiritual and psychological growth.


The gratitude letter developed to see the emotional power of being grateful. You really have to think long and hard about the person you choose to receive your letter. It is a powerful moment when the person receives the letter from you, reacts, and you reflect on the whole exercise and how it touches you in your psyche and soul.


I used a variation of the gratitude letter in my ethics class when I asked the students to identify the values that they feel are most important to them in relationships. Ethical decisions involve others so it is critical to explore the nature relationships. The students write about the individual who embodies that value and why. I indicate to them as well that nobody will read their letters except me. When I give them back for them, I suggest that they put the letter in a safe place as the letter tends to be very personal.


Early one morning when I was entering my office, I heard a woman crying in the conference room that was across from my office. I wondered what could be possibly wrong in that individual’s life. I brought her into the office and gave her time to gather her composure. Still crying, she said that her daughter shared the gratitude assignment and the important value in her relationships with her. The letter contained praise and thanks for this mother. The daughter and mother didn’t have a good relationship. The letter changed everything. Her mother proclaimed that it was the happiest day of her life as she did not know how much her daughter loved and admired her.


Who would ever have thought that an admission’s essay could potentially be a life changing moment in time? I do because I have seen it work dramatically in the lives of my students.


Try it!


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