Sunshine for Sun Devils encourages kindness through action

Ponder this conundrum: The human brain receives nearly 4,000 pieces of information every day, but we only pay attention to about 200. Our brains choose mostly negative bits to focus on. Charming? Not.

Sarah Tracy, an associate professor of organization communication at Arizona State University’s Hugh Downs School of Human Communication, hopes to change this insidious process, at least at the university. She is the founder of Sunshine for Sun Devils, an initiative that encourages the maroon and gold family to be grateful, kind and appreciative of one another.

“The Sunshine for Sun Devils initiative is a structured gratitude giving campaign,” Tracy says. “We try to figure out ways to share gratitude and show kindness to increase the spirit of collaboration and feelings of community in the workplace.”

The campaign was born in 2012 in a “Communication and the Art of Happiness” class she taught. Tracy and her students explored research on positive organizational scholarship, positive psychology and appreciative inquiry, even though work-life well-being research has traditionally focused on problems instead of solutions.

“There is only so much information one can get from the negative,” Tracy says. “We started looking at research that shows that positive emotion not only helps the recipient, but also helps the provider obtain happiness.”

For one of the course assignments, Tracy’s students organized a kindness flash mob that involved giving away goodies such as candy, snacks or words of inspiration to complete strangers. A few students delivered treats to random bicycle baskets with a note that read, “You’re the recipient of a random act of kindness from Sarah Tracy’s Communication and the Art of Happiness class.” The gesture didn’t go unappreciated; Tracy received many emails expressing gratitude.

Encouraged by their success, Tracy and a team of staff and students launched the Sunshine for Sun Devils campaign as an action research project to develop positive emotional contagion in the Hugh Downs School, as well as study the effects of kindness on the giver and the recipient.

Tracy says the human brain can be re-trained to think more positively by “spreading sunshine.”

“One of the three main ways to spread sunshine is to express gratitude,” Tracy explains. “Another is to count your blessings. Because of our tendency to focus on problems, we’re limited in our ability to see the good things in our lives and amplify their effect. By counting your blessings, you’re focusing on them and moving from good to great. Finally, there’s appreciation.”

Numerous benefits are associated with expressing gratitude and appreciation.

“When you share gratitude, you get a health boost,” Tracy notes. “It not only increases self-esteem, but also helps people cope with stress and trauma.”

Workplace research also shows that people who express gratitude and appreciation make better leaders and earn more. Employees who are thanked often are motivated to work harder, she added.

The ripple effect caused by the Sunshine for Sun Devils campaign has been felt by many members of the ASU community, and their friends and family.

Margaret Brooks, a doctoral student at the Hugh Downs School, has seen eyes light up and smiles appear after spreading some sunshine.

“My husband, my friends and even servers at restaurants have noticed and appreciated the gratitude I send their way,” she says.

Notes of appreciation, kindness and gratitude have been sent through the Sunshine for Sun Devils website. Tracy says even though most comments she receives regarding the project are encouraging, sometimes people do want to know if being positive and expressing gratitude is too “Pollyanna-ish.”

“I encourage them to look at the benefits,” she says. “It doesn’t take them very long to realize the importance of what we’re doing here.”

Tracy hopes that the Sunshine for Sun Devils campaign becomes a bigger phenomenon on the ASU campus and ultimately, in the community.

“I hope it goes as far as people will take it,” she says.

The Sunshine for Sun Devils campaign is part of the Hugh Downs School’s Project for Wellness and Work-Life, a consortium of researchers studying the overlap of private, domestic life with work life.

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