“I Appreciate You”–What Generation Z Can Teach Us About Gratitude, Theology and Life

“I Appreciate You”–What Generation Z Can Teach Us About Gratitude, Theology and Life May 16, 2020

Change is coming.  Millennials are no longer the younger generation.  Generation Z is here to stay, and it’s worth paying attention to what they have to say.

To date, Generation Z (born 1996 and after) are generally well-educated, progressive, diverse digital natives who are in many ways better prepared to lead our brave, new, technologically-driven world than any of the generations that have come before.  One trend this author has seen that expresses this generational identity best is the willingness of Generation Z to reframe social realities in ways that truly value the inherent worth and dignity of other humans.

Earlier today, I did a quick study of one of these reframings in particular–the use of the phrase, “I appreciate you.”  This is not the same as “thank you,” which focuses on an object or service provided.  This is directed at the the recipient themself.  I appreciate you, as opposed to the thing you did for me.

While this phrase has been around in some form or another for decades, especially in the South, as Generation Z has come of age usage has exploded.  A quick googling of a verbatim “I appreciate you,” limited to the dates January 1-December 31 of each of past several years, shows:

2014 – 54,400 instances

2015 – 76,800 instances

2016 – 87,700 instances

2017 – 111,000 instances

2018 – 165,000 instances

2019 – 215,000 instances

To date, less than five months into 2020, Google already finds 171,000 instances of “I appreciate you”–well on pace to more than double the previous year.  While the Internet has grown some during this time, it has not grown nearly enough to explain this trend by itself.

I appreciate you.

Science of Gratitude

The body of research related to gratitude is growing.  Although this appears to be a practice Generation Z engages in intuitively, social scientists like Dr. Robert Emmons of UC-Davis (find his work here and here) have found that regular practice of gratitude can have a positive effect on a variety of measures of well-being, including both physical and mental health, and the ability to achieve personal goals.  Because your gratitude also extends to the people around you, there is also emerging evidence of a “ripple effect,” where your intentional gratitude can positively affect the well being of anyone who witnesses it.

One of the findings Emmons discusses is that a person’s theology, or experience of the divine, has a positive correlation with their ability to experience the benefits of gratitude as well:

Finally, people who are more strongly disposed to experience gratitude tend to be more religiously and spiritually oriented than people lower in gratitude. That is, they tend to score higher on measures of traditional religiousness (e.g., church attendance, prayer) and nonsectarian measures that assess spiritual experiences or sensibilities (e.g., sense of contact with a divine power, belief that all living things are interconnected).

Theology of Gratitude

This religious connection to gratitude is not new.  It is at least as old as the Psalmist exhorting us to “enter his gates with Thanksgiving” (Ps. 100:4) or Paul’s advice to “Give thanks in all circumstances” (1 Th. 5:18).  In fact, there is a growing interfaith movement recognizing the importance of a theology of gratitude, with surprising parallels to the “awareness of the benefactor” found in Generation Z’s “I appreciate you.”

A few years back, the Reverend Kent McKusick preached a sermon at a UU Fellowship I belonged too.  It was on the theology of gratitude, and included much of the information linked to above.  He concluded with a challenge–to choose one small act of gratitude per day, and see where the practice leads you.  I took him up on that challenge, and can honestly say my life has changed in more good ways than I can count as a result.

If you’d like to do the same, there are literally millions of web pages out there dedicated to gratitude exercises.  Or you can start here, with a free worksheet from therapistaid.com.  Or, if you really want to make an intergenerational difference in the world, maybe you could find the nearest member of Generation Z, and ask what “I appreciate you” means to them.

About Jim Coppoc
Jim Coppoc is a seminarian at United Theological Seminary of the Twin Cities, and the award-winning author of three books and two chapbooks of poetry; four good plays; a forgettable textbook; and a host of articles, essays, short prose, etc. He was among the founding faculty of the low-residency MFA program at Chatham University, and he taught writing, literature and American Indian Studies for many years at Iowa State University. Jim has collaborated with groups from the National Endowment for the Arts to the Iowa and Wyoming Arts Councils to prisons, preschools, churches, bars and everything between. He currently lives in Ames, Iowa with two amazing sons and the best dog ever, and he is hard at work on a novel about angels, demons, boarding school, and what it means to be blood. You can read more about the author here.
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