“Piglet noticed that even though he had a Very Small Heart, it could hold a rather large amount of Gratitude” – A.A Milne
At the end of the year, most of us reflect on the year that has passed, the things that have happened and the people that have played an important role in our lives. We also look forward to the new year and think of good intentions and changes for the better that we would like to set in motion. In this light, gratitude is a very interesting concept. Let me tell you more ….
What is gratitude?
Gratitude is often associated with saying ‘thank you’ and being appreciative. For scientists, gratitude is defined as a positive emotion, which has two components. First of all, it’s an confirmation of goodness. We affirm that there are good things in the world, gifts and benefits we’ve received or experienced. Secondly, we understand that the sources of the good didn’t come from anything we did ourselves (this leads to feelings of pride), but from outside of ourselves. We acknowledge that others (or even higher powers, if you’re of a spiritual mindset) gave us many gifts, big and small, to help us achieve the goodness in our lives.
This doesn’t mean that life is perfect and it doesn’t take away the irritations, hassles and burdens, but gratitude does allow us to identify good in our life and even find positives at tough times.
Robert A. Emmons, Ph.D., the world’s leading scientific expert on gratitude, has found in his research that people who practice gratitude consistently report a host of benefits;
There is a difference between feeling grateful and being grateful. We cannot easily will ourselves to feel emotions like happiness, sadness or gratefulness. But being grateful is a choice, an attitude that endures and is relatively immune to the gains and losses that flow in and out of our lives. And from being grateful, grateful feelings will follow.
The importance of gratitude
There are several ways that gratitude can have an impact on people’s lives. A few are highlighted in particular;
- Gratitude allows us to celebrate the present, it magnifies positive emotions. Research on emotion shows that positive emotions wear off quickly. Our emotional systems like new things and change. We adapt to positive life circumstances so that before too long, the new car, the new spouse, the new house, the new phone — they don’t feel so new and exciting anymore. But gratitude makes us appreciate the value of something, and when we appreciate the value of something, we extract more benefits from it; we’re less likely to take it for granted. In effect, gratitude allows us to participate more in life. We notice the positives more, and that magnifies the pleasures you get from life. Instead of adapting to goodness, we celebrate goodness.
- Gratitude blocks negative emotions, such as envy, resentment, regret — emotions that can destroy our happiness. There’s even evidence, from research by psychologist Alex Wood, showing that gratitude can reduce the frequency and duration of episodes of depression.
- Grateful people are more stress resistant. There’s a number of studies showing that in the face of serious trauma, adversity, and suffering, if people have a grateful disposition, they’ll recover more quickly as they find the positives in their dire situation and enhance their resilience.
- Grateful people have a higher sense of self-worth. When you’re grateful, you have the sense that others are looking out for you.
Just because gratitude is good doesn’t mean it’s always easy. Practicing gratitude can be at odds with psychological tendencies like the ‘self-serving bias’. When good things happen to us, we tend to say it’s because of something we did, but when bad things happen, we might blame other people or circumstances. When we’re grateful, we give credit to other people for our success. We acknowledge that we did some of it ourselves, but we widen our range of attribution to others, which makes gratitude go against the self-serving bias.
Our need to feel in control of our environment also works against gratitude. Sometimes with gratitude you just have to accept life as it is and be grateful for what you have.
Finally, gratitude contradicts the ‘just-world hypothesis’. This hypothesis states that we get what we deserve in life. But it doesn’t always work out that way, does it? Bad things happen to good people and vice versa. With gratitude comes the realization that we get more than we deserve. This goes against a message we get a lot in our contemporary culture; that we deserve the good fortune that comes our way, that we’re entitled to it. If you deserve everything, if you’re entitled to everything, it makes it a lot harder to be grateful for anything.
From an evolutionary perspective we are wired to react to and remember negative input much better and more easy than the positive. Research on positive and negative emotions by Barbara Fredrickson and Rick Hansen teach us that experiencing positive emotions explicitly counter the effects of negative emotions, but it needs practice and consistent attention to make that practice an ingrained part of our daily life. So, what better way than to start this practice from a young age.
Evidence from research of Robert Emmons and colleagues amongst adolescents suggests that grateful young adolescents (11-13 yr), are happier and more optimistic, have better social support, are more satisfied with their school, family, community, friends, and themselves, and give more emotional support to others, compared to their less grateful counterparts. It was also found that grateful teens (14-19 yr) are more satisfied with their lives, use their strengths to better their community, are more engaged in their schoolwork and hobbies, have higher grades, and are less envious, depressed, and materialistic.
So, here are some ideas on how to cultivate the positive emotion of gratitude. For yourself and for your family.
- Keep a gratitude journal. Establish a practice in which you remind yourself of the gifts, grace, benefits, and good things you enjoy. Writing helps to organize thoughts, facilitate integration, and helps you accept your own experiences and put them in context. Writing on one thing your grateful about in more detail is more effective than writing a list of things.
- Use visual reminders. Obstacles to gratefulness are forgetfulness and a lack of mindful awareness, so visual reminders can serve as cues to trigger thoughts of gratitude. An idea for a visual reminder for your family could be a special plant where you can add little cards with gratitude messages.
- Sometime each day, simply ask your child/children about a few things that made them happy that day. Once they are in the habit of talking about these things, gratitude follows naturally.
- Practice the ‘art’ of savoring – take time with each other to remember significant memories or events and who played an important role in that situation. Savor your moments together, big and small, and rid yourself of distractions at such times, including your smartphone. Being mindful helps you maintain empathy toward a child, and this provides important modeling of empathy, the most important emotion for developing gratitude and moral behavior. It will also give you and your child a heightened sense of appreciation for the things both of you love and for your relationship.
- Encourage helping others and nurturing relationships – helping others and being generous are two key ingredients for making grateful kids. When children lend a hand, especially while using their strengths, they feel more connected to those they’re helping, which helps them to develop and nurture friendships and social relationships. A great way to do this is by teaching them through your actions that other people matter and that tending to relationships should be a priority.
- Help kids find what matters to them – having a sense of purpose in life gives youth a compass for creating a meaningful life. As adults, it’s our job to help kids discover their passions and to find a path to purpose that resonates with them— with their values, interests, and dreams. This starts with feeding their interests in the social issues they care about and pushing them to learn as much as they can about those issues and discover ways they can make a difference.
- Let your children invent a ritual for the family to adopt as your own way of practicing gratitude. There are lots of ideas on the internet on how to establish creative ways on practicing gratitude (for example gratitude jars, where everyone can leave messages of gratitude for other family members or a gratitude poster where everyone can write, draw or stick pictures of things they are thankful about).
Our teens offer us a challenge when we want to instill a sense of gratitude in them. Telling them to do anything works counterproductive a lot of the times and their sense of entitlement can sometimes make our hackles rise. The first thing to remember is that teenagers’ unique developmental task is to grow into their own individual. Every time teens take your advice, they are setting themselves up to remain dependent on you and your wisdom. But their main goal as teens is to get you to recognize their wisdom, their independence. Herein lies the contradiction.
This doesn’t mean that we should give up on teaching our teens to feel and express more gratitude in their lives. Here are some suggestions for practicing gratitude with teenagers:
- Go at it indirectly, by fostering altruism rather than gratitude. Helping others evokes feelings of gratitude, compassion, and confidence in people of any age.
- Let teens lead. One size doesn’t fit all when it comes to practicing gratitude—and a gratitude practice is going to be a lot less effective if it is seen as a chore or an assignment. So tell teens you want them to design a gratitude practice for your whole family this year. “You are old enough: You design a new tradition for us!” And by all means, let them take the credit, even if they come up with something you suggested weeks ago.
- Use gratitude to cultivate the growth mindset in difficult times. What did you learn from that terrible experience? What good came out of it, despite the difficulty?
- Keep at it. When teens feel authentic gratitude, it is a positive emotion for them just like for everyone else. When they create a gratitude practice that works for them, feelings of gratitude will become habitual, hopefully built into their daily lives. Even if they resist heartily at first—remember, that is their job as adolescents—there are many many gratitude resistors who blossom into appreciative young adults.
Trying to make grateful kids isn’t just an issue for families; it’s an issue for society as well. Society desperately needs to harness the power of gratitude. As our world becomes more culturally diverse and digitally connected, and as complex societal problems grow, gratitude may help catalyze the motivation and skills youth need to succeed not just academically but in the ‘test of life’ as well.
Our commitment to help kids develop into moral adults, who will contribute to a world of compassion and care is worthwhile the time and effort. It’s up to all of us to make it happen.
I wish you all a lovely Winter Break and safe travels if you are traveling.
psychologist | counselor | personal coach