How often do you stop and count your blessings? Gratitude may seem to be all the rage right now, with bloggers and magazines talking about the importance of having an attitude of gratitude, but there is some real research supporting this trend. Studies have shown that people who cultivate gratefulness are happier, more optimistic, more energetic and nicer than those who don’t. Not only that, but they are physically healthier as well. In fact, gratitude is even becoming commonly used as a tool in therapeutic interventions; it can function as a kind of “social support”, which is what psychologists call the perception that people have of being care about and for by others. Many believe that cultivating attitudes of gratitude can help people to build the psychological capital which is beneficial in difficult situations, such as the death of a loved one or a job loss. In short, being grateful is pretty great!
So what is gratitude? Robert Emmons, perhaps one of the foremost experts on gratitude research, has this definition of gratitude: “[Gratitude is] an affirmation of goodness. We affirm that there are good things in the world, gifts and benefits we’ve received. We recognize that the sources of this goodness are outside of ourselves … We acknowledge that other people—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.” There is also a social dimension to gratitude, which is that it is a relationship-strengthening emotion, because it requires acknowledging the social support in our lives.
Research has found this to be a positive attitude in children as well as adults. It seems that materialist youth tend to do poorly, while youth that demonstrate pro-social behavior, such as gratitude, flourish. In fact, this same study found that higher levels of gratitude can uniquely predict outcomes like higher grade-point average, life satisfaction, and social integration, as well as lower levels of depression and envy. In contrast, higher levels of materialism predict the opposite outcomes. Research shows that as children internalize materialistic values, their well-being and self-worth actually decreases. Mental health also decreases, since many of their perceived needs are not met. Gratitude, however, seems to have an opposite effect, in part because it helps people fulfill their basic psychological needs of competence, autonomy, and relatedness.
Children who cultivate grateful attitudes are more successful, exhibit more pro-social behaviors, and generally have higher overall well-being. Additionally, grateful children develop intrinsic goals, such as helping the community and connecting with others, rather than materialist goals, like fame and wealth. This may seem like common sense, and to an extent it really is. We all like to be around people who are kind and positive and we like to help those people to achieve success. On the other hand, materialism erodes friendships and creates attitudes of envy; those people experience less success for the same reasons that their grateful peers succeed. Having grateful attitudes set children up for success as adults in the same way that being kind and empathetic does.
However, this is much easier said than done. We live in a culture that values materialism as a measure of success and this can be difficult to avoid for adults, let alone children. As they develop, children naturally internalize attitudes and values from society and those societal concerns have a real effect on their worldview. One sure way to increase gratitude in both your child and yourself is to go outside. Being outside has a host of benefits outside of increasing gratitude and interacting in a sensory way with nature is shown to increase appreciation for both the natural world and for life itself. Explore your backyard or local green space and observe the trees, flowers, dirt, and critters that live there. Use magnifying glasses to observe bugs and snowflakes, dig your hands in the dirt, and smell the roses (literally). If you’re feeling brave, maybe taste a dandelion or some clean snow. The more time you spend outside with your child, the more they will love and appreciate the natural world. For some ideas to help you make the most of your time outside, check out this post.
Nature is not the only way to cultivate gratitude; here are some other ways to help your child develop a grateful heart:
1. Keep a gratitude journal: Recording 3-5 things per day that you are grateful for is shown to increase gratitude. This can be done as a family on a communal board, during dinner as part of conversation, or in an actual journal (virtual or otherwise). A great start is to ask your child to share “three good things” that happened to him or her that day. Remember to share your own list as well, making it a family activity rather than a daily quiz for your child. You are a great role model for gratitude and your own attitude will go a long way in influencing your child.
2. Write a gratitude letter: This is not just a thank-you note for a birthday gift, but a real, heart-felt expression of gratitude for someone else. Help your child write a short note of gratitude to a family member, friend, or teacher; adding pictures or a small, homemade present is even better. It can be anything, a homemade card or just a note, but the goal is to get your child to articulate how others help him and to give him the experience of thanking those people with sincerity.
3. Practice mindfully receiving gifts: Help your child to consider that someone mindfully intended to give him a gift or help him, even at a small cost to themselves. Research shows that this in particular is a helpful practice.
4. Say grace: Whether or not your family subscribes to a particular religion, recognizing the work that went into a meal is a good thing. This can take a more traditional or religious tone if desired. If not, say a small blessing on the farmers who grew the food and those hands that prepared it.
5. Help others: Volunteer as a family to help those less fortunate. Whether it is a shift at the soup kitchen or donating toys to charity, helping other helps us appreciate our own blessings even more.
To learn about the benefits of nature on pro-social behavior, check out this blog post.
The above photos are taken by Science Education staff.