Expressing thanks may be one of the simplest ways to feel better. The word gratitude comes from the latin "gratia" which means grace or graciousness.
Positive psychology research is strongly and consistently associating gratitude with greater happiness. Gratitude helps people feel more positive emotions, relish good experiences, improve health, deal with adversity, and build strong relationships.
In a study done at Wharton School in PA, it was proven that managing to say "thank you" to the people that work for them find that these employees are motivated to work harder. The study took a group of people who were to be calling fundraising groups over the phone. The group was divided in half. The first group received a pep talk from the director of annual giving saying how grateful she was for their efforts. The second group received no pep talk. The pep talk group made 50% more fundraising calls than group 2.
But really, gratitude is way more than the polite please and thank you-- it's a lifestyle, a mindset. Researchers have found that people with a grateful disposition are more thankful for a wider variety of things in their lives, such as friends, health, nature, their jobs, or a higher power, and that they experience feelings of gratitude more intensely.
The trap however for most human beings though is the kind of "fools gratitude" or "fools compassion" when you are kind or generous simply because you want an ego pump or to subtly manipulate others. We address all these emotions in the HMHB Kindness Campaign for kids and teens and teach kids to observe these feelings and use their face it & erase it tools on these feelings inside.
That being said, the mental and deeper inner practice of gratitude is a habit you can grow within yourself and within your kids, even if the current situation seems bleak. According to a national online poll of 2,000 adults commissioned by the John Templeton Foundation, 59% of those surveyed thought that people today are "less likely to have an attitude of gratitude than 10 or 20 years ago." The youngest group surveyed (18-24) showed they were least likely of any age group to report expressing gratitude regularly (only 35%) and the most likely reason to express gratitude was for "self-serving reasons" i.e. "it will encourage people to be kind or generous to me."
Psychologist Richard Weissbourd, faculty director of the Making Caring Common initiative at Harvard's Graduate School of Education, says that "much of the blame is on the self-esteem movement...parents were fed a myth that if children feel better about themselves (i.e. through parental praise and catering to their every need to make them feel happy) this would help children to develop character." He says what we're seeing is the opposite happening in most cases. "When parents organize their lives around their kids, those kids expect everyone else to as well, and that leads to entitlement, and when children are raised to feel entitled to everything, they are left feeling grateful for nothing."
Conversely, when parents actions project "I'll do whatever I want", children develop a habit of doing the same. Always late to school? Making video games the babysitter? Complaining about others frequently? These habits develop in children a different kind of entitlement and arrogance by not being reinforced to adhere to positive expectations such as being on time (as a show of respect and responsibility), connecting with one another (showing that you would rather be with someone than doing something with out them), or taking responsibility for your own reactions and not expressing blame towards others for your irritations (complaining is the direct opposite of gratitude.)
What it means is that when everything is made easy, or no expectation must be met, no strength or understanding can be developed. Struggle, challenge, instruction, responsibility, discipline all mean a child has to work at something in order to see progress and be productive. This is a growth mindset which is much more process oriented than result oriented, and develops an attitude towards life that appreciates both success and struggle. If children are shown and taught that obstacles, making personal choices in every moment, and meeting expectations of others and society are what's expected of them, they can in turn develop gratitude.
There are more studies coming out about the benefits of "counting your blessings" for kids and teens, and the results only reinforce what we already thought to be true: that an attitude of gratitude provides fewer episodes of depression, creates an upward spiral of positive emotions, provides the backdrop for greater school engagement, and lessens episodes of anxiety, aggression, and bullying.
Here's what you can do to start developing an attitude of gratitude in kids.
1) Go around the breakfast or dinner table and say what you are thankful for (or in the car before school drop off!)
2) Before bed, say thank you to: the sun, moon, starts, sky, the favorite stuffed animals, anything you'd like to recognize as something to be grateful for. Have a conversation with kids about why they are grateful for each thing mentioned, and share some of your own.
3) Be sure to lead by example, and bring attention to your kids when you are feeling grateful for struggles and success, or point out things like "Did you know grandma drove 5 hours just to see you in your play? How kind is that of her?" Have the intention of noticing and acknowledging the larger circle of people who benefit your life and the life of your child.
4) You can engage your children in conversations, books, videos, outings, and even activism that give them a lesson in how other people live so they understand how their world is not the same as everyone else. Here at HMHB we love the kid-friendly documentary TASHI & THE MONK, and the books THE GIVING TREE, MANNERS CAN BE FUN, HOW TO BEHAVE AND WHY, THANKFUL, and DID I EVER TELL YOU HOW LUCKY YOU ARE? See our HMHB Shop for all our recommended media for child character development.
3) Have a family or group gratitude jar/board/box/basket where your group can write what they're grateful for daily or weekly. Then as a group, you can empty the jar and share the gratitude contributions weekly, monthly, or yearly.
*To make the gratitude jar even more stimulating, you can choose a weekly struggle to put in your jar-- we even have the "box o' struggles" in our kids program. Kids have to write I'm grateful for my struggle of ____________ weekly. They may not feel grateful for it, but what this does is allows them to see their feelings surrounding the struggle so they can use their face it & erase it tools on those feelings. Also, this reminds kids that struggles "may look tough, but are really their best friend" because without struggle, hardship, difficulty or challenge we never grow or get stronger. So if they start to approach their struggles as opportunities dressed in the clothing of hard work or pain, they develop a much deeper sense of gratitude for everything that happens to them.
4) Write thank you notes AND forgiveness notes to someone or something every week (the favorite teddy bear, your mailman, your brother/sister (who were not so nice yesterday), your grandma, etc.)
5) In a classroom or as a family, choose a partner on a daily or weekly basis where you write down on a piece of paper a few sentences why you are grateful for your partner. Encourage kids to write something that is true about why the other person makes them happy, teaches them something, challenges them to be a better person, or simply makes them laugh or smile. After the partners finish writing, they exchange their writings and keep them.
REFERENCES: health.harvard.edu & An Attitude of Gratitude Wall Street Journal, by Jennifer Breheny Wallace, February 24/25 2018 issue.