Developing the Skill of Gratitude

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This article originally appeared on the website of our friends and colleagues at the Center for Scholars & Storytellers and was originally created to support the John Templeton Foundation and Baylor University in hosting its Technology Innovation Request for Proposal: Improving Character Strengths of Adolescents Through Technology Innovation.

Gratitude is one of the first things children learn, as parents constantly urge them to say “thank you” to others who hand out candy on Halloween, share toys in the classroom, or say something sweet. Some even argue that gratitude acts as a “social glue,” strengthening relationships and providing meaning in life. It’s no secret why kids are taught about gratitude as soon as they can talk — research has shown that it improves behavior, increases grades, increases happiness, and decreases risky behaviors. Scientists have been working tirelessly to understand this virtue, and new research can provide insights in creating media for young children that cultivates gratitude for a happy and fulfilling life.

Increasing gratitude during childhood is important because this is a key period in development, when children have more social relationships than ever before. It is vital that these relationships are supportive, happy, and healthy.

Psychological Research on Gratitude

A group of scientists from multiple universities teamed up to examine a new intervention for promoting gratitude in young children. In this study, published in School Psychology Review, children were randomly assigned to either a control group or an intervention group that educated children on “benefit-appraisal.” In the benefit-appraisal group, students were taught how to understand a person’s good intentions when helping someone else, how that helping may come at a cost to the giver or helper, and how beneficial it is to receive a gift from someone else. These lessons were not just lectures, but comprised of discussions, writing assignments, and even role-playing activities — activities that target specific ways children learn.

These lessons were carried out every day for one week. Scientists found that students who received these lessons showed increased grateful mood and wrote 80 percent more thank-you notes to the parent-teacher association than the students in the control condition. But this intervention didn’t just last a week — the researchers found that it induced gratitude up to five months later and even showed a positive effect on well-being. Scientists believe that this effect is so powerful because the curriculum induces grateful thinking, which manifests as grateful action and attitude, and therefore changed behavior and enhanced well-being.

Gratitude vs. Happiness

More research has shown that gratitude may contribute more than momentary happiness to children — it may even ignite a motivation to give back to their community. In this study, middle school students were asked about their gratitude beliefs, social behavior, life satisfaction, and social integration (e.g., motivation to help others) at three different points in time: when the study started, three months later, and six months later. The researchers found that the measurement of gratitude at the start of the study predicted how well students were socially integrated six months later. The factors driving this finding were social behavior and life satisfaction. Their findings suggest that gratitude and social integration build on each other; one predicts the other, and vice versa. The scientists conclude that in order to shape children into thoughtful, caring, contributing members of society, gratitude interventions may be the first step.

Gratitude and Adolescents

Research has shown that teenagers who were more grateful experienced social support from friends and family, increased optimism, and had higher satisfaction in all parts of their life, such as school, family, friends, community, and self, as compared with teens who weren’t as grateful. Also, teens who were more grateful reported greater life satisfaction, academic achievement, and passion for activities, and they felt less envious, depressed, and materialistic than their not-so-grateful peers. Overall, it’s clear that developing gratitude is a skill that will positively affect almost every aspect of life. Therefore, it’s vital that children’s media make it fun and easy to focus on cultivating gratitude. Thankfully, there are concrete, evidence-based practices that only take a couple of minutes a day and can help children lead a fulfilling life full of gratitude.

How to Integrate Gratitude

  • Counting blessings using a gratitude journal by writing down five things every day for which kids are grateful — take it one step further by also writing down the causes of those good things.

  • Kids can write a gratitude letter to someone they never really properly thanked — this will make the receiver feel appreciated and the giver feel fulfilled!

  • Encourage kids to think about what life would be like had a positive event not occurred — this is called mental subtraction and can increase happiness.

  • Show kids that spending money on experiences rather than things will feel better in the long term: Instead of buying flashy tennis shoes, buy a board game to play with friends.

Author Julia Schorn is a second-year Ph.D. student in psychology at UCLA, with a focus in cognitive neuroscience and memory. In her free time, she enjoys playing the harp and making science accessible to everyone.

Tags: Developing Skills & Character, Education, Empowerment, happiness, Self Care

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