Relevance of soft skills and gratitude

WHAT keeps us happy and healthy as we go through life? It is with this opening question that psychiatrist Robert Waldinger started his TED talk in November 2015. In a recent survey of millennials that Wadlinger cited, over 80% of the respondents said that getting rich was their major life goal.

Another 50% of these same young adults said that another major life goal was to become famous.

Robert Waldinger is not an ordinary man, he is the director of a 75-year-old Harvard study on adult development, which is one of the most comprehensive longitudinal studies in history. The study was commissioned in 1938 with 724 men both from Harvard College and Boston’s poorest neighbourhoods.

Participants in the study are contacted annually and asked questions about their work, home life and health. When Waldinger delivered his TED talk, 60 of the initial participants were still participating in the study.

The finding of the study was simple “good relationships keep us happier and healthier.” This sounds simple enough, and at a certain level it feels expected, so how on earth are so many people thinking of money and fame as their major goals in life?

Shouldn’t we all spend more time and effort on cultivating great relationships with our loved ones and with our communities at large? What resulted in this situation? And more importantly, what kind of social, educational and political leadership is necessary to enable individuals and communities to achieve their potential and live successful, balanced and happy lives?

The research done in the areas of human happiness, motivation and success in the past two decades is pointing in the direction of emotional intelligence and nurturing successful relationships as the bedrock for how individuals and communities remain motivated, resilient, happy and connected.

While the ability to nurture happy and successful relationships is increasingly recognised as the basis of personal and professional success, the question is, are universities doing enough to prepare graduates to be equipped with this necessary skill? Educational objectives of different university programmes seem to focus on the development of academic capabilities with little focus on skills and attitudes necessary to build relationships such as self-awareness, self-management and empathy.

As relationships and self-management skills continue to be demanded by employers as key graduate attributes and as they represent the basis of creating resilient individuals who are able to cope with change and stress, institutions of higher learning are under pressure to respond.

When it comes to developing “soft skills” such as emotional intelligence among graduates, some of the key challenges that universities face are:

• How to effectively and sustainably develop these skills?

• How to measure the students’ achievements in acquiring these skills?

• Can these soft skills be nurtured through an educational programme or are they part of the nature of an individual?

As an experiment in building emotionally intelligent youth, Heriot-Watt University Malaysia developed a two-week programme, dubbed the Youth Transformation Programme, where 52 SPM leavers worked together on developing self-awareness, self-management, social awareness and relationship management skills. The highlight of the programme was a gratitude session where the participants read out a “thank you letter” to their parents.

Showing gratitude is one of the most powerful ways of building strong relationships, but we often don’t know how to do it.

Participants are trained in the art of saying thank you in four parts which is done through writing a letter. They are:

• Clearly state what you are grateful for. Start by saying “thank you for ....”

• Mention how the action/behaviour you are grateful for was helpful to you.

• Acknowledge the sacrifices that the person you are grateful for has made.

• Recognise the character strength exhibited by the person that you are saying thank you to.

Participants then read these letters to their parents and the impact was amazing.

Hugs were exchanged, tears were flowing freely and more importantly, participants learnt how to acknowledge and express their emotions.

Many of the participants found it very difficult to express their emotions at the beginning. Slowly and with training and support, they were able to be more aware of their emotions and more capable of expressing themselves.

“After completing the programme, my daughter came out feeling certain about what she wants to do vis-a-vis her long term life goals and education route.

“She turned from being indecisive to becoming decisive. She’s also more confident taking up leadership roles in the university and participating in volunteer work,” shared a parent describing her daughter’s experience during the the two-week programme.

While self-awareness is the cornerstone of the emotional intelligence, relationship management is its ultimate objective and I hope that more universities and schools take it on themselves to help our youth develop these hugely important skills.

The fact that the programme had such a positive impact on the participants is a clear indication that developing soft skills is possible with careful planning and innovative delivery.

Meanwhile, I hope that you too will start using the four-part thank you and touch the lives of those around you.


Provost and CEO

Heriot-Watt University Malaysia