Children’s television shows sing about it, Hallmark cards wax poetic about it and in a week, families around America will sit down to a meal in honor of it.
While the simple phrase “thank you” is a good place to start, psychologists and researchers say true gratitude is a complex concept to grasp. That being said, multiple studies, most recently in children, have shown that with more gratitude comes greater levels of happiness.
In 2008, a study published in the Journal of School Psychology showed that sixth and seventh graders who listed five things they were grateful for each day for two weeks, were more satisfied with their lives than those who wrote lists of problems.
As a result, there is an increased likelihood of further positive interactions, which can help build and strengthen friendships and families, Cindy Erdley, a psychology professor at the University of Maine in Orono said.
Erdley, who specializes in developmental psychology, said children 1 or 2 years old can be socialized to express thankfulness and will soon learn that it carries great meaning. But without some direction, most children will not think to express thanks, similiar to how they don’t tend to naturally share with their peers, she said.
“This suggests to me that a lot of prosocial behavior is much more influenced by socialization than by biological tendencies,” Erdley said.
Because true gratitude is a rather complex emotion, children may be close to 10 years old before understanding its significance. In order to feel thankful, a person must have the ability to understand and appreciate intentional acts of kindness from others, Erdley said.
However, Giacomo Bono, co-author of “Making Grateful Kids: A Scientific Approach to Helping Youth Thrive,” and Dominguez Hills, a professor of psychology at California State University, said that while some people are more innately grateful than others, it is something anyone at anytime can learn.
“I’d say [gratitude] is mostly learned, but admittedly, some people are more empathetic and compassionate than others,” Bono said in an email. “These are relevant traits that may be genetically determined to some degree, too.”
Beyond thank you
Erdley argues that when people experience gratitude, it motivates them to “pay it forward,” leading to a more cohesive community and world. It can help people feel more in touch with others and lead them to connect in meaningful ways.
Cyclical in nature, gratitude can come from taking pause and noticing everyday beauty, but it also can enhance the number of times we recognize someone or something special each day.
For example, one of Jeff Froh’s favorite days was when his daughter first stopped on her own to admire a sunset. As the other co-author of “Making Grateful Kids: A Scientific Approach to Helping Youth Thrive ” and a professor at Hofstra University in New York, Froh’s work in gratitude seeps into all aspects of his life. But that day, he realized it seeped into his daughter’s life as well, and she was connecting to her world.
“How awesome is it to see your child getting the importance of pausing, appreciating and acknowledging the beauty that’s around them,” Froh said, adding that shared empathy is one of the biggest functions of gratitude.
“It has the ability to bind people together, it’s kind of a social Krazy Glue,” he said.
Practice what you preach
Research has shown that gratitude is associated with lower levels of depression, envy, delinquency and higher levels of academic performance, life satisfaction, self-esteem, hope and happiness — all things many of us want for ourselves and our children.
Bono argues that gratitude is one of the most malleable character strengths and that with intentional practice, it’s possible to grow more thankful.
So how do we bring more gratitude into our daily lives and homes?
It may seem self-evident, but adult behavior can have a direct effect on children.
Help your children write or draw thank you cards not just for gifts, but for someone who spends time with them. Talk about why you are thankful for something and find an activity to do together that shows another person how much you appreciate them.
And make sure it’s not just a one-time thing.
“The biggest thing is don’t leave gratitude at the Thanksgiving table,” Froh said. “Gratitude isn’t something only to be considered when times are good, if anything, it’s the opposite, when times are bad, that’s when you should tap into it.”
Limit screen time (for everyone)
No research has directly shown that screen time dampens the development of gratitude, however, Bono said it does show that it can be harmful for developing empathy and prosocial behaviors.
Placing limits on screen time and asking children to interact with others will help them form better relationships and learn gratitude and self-improvement. Froh also encourages parents to put down their own devices.
“One of the major obstacles to experiencing gratitude is that life is full of nonstop distractions,” he said. “It’s taking us away from the present moment. Slow down and take it easy.”
Spend time together
The more time we spend with our children and the people we love, the better our chances of imparting lessons on them will be. Healthy relationships are paramount to happiness and while quality time is important, Froh said the quantity of time together is important as well.
“Kids, yes, even teenagers, want to, and need to, spend time with us,” he said. “It’s only with spending time with them that all these important discussions start happening.”