Seeing the positive

How expressing gratitude promotes joy in our kids' lives

Children on their way to school (photo credit: MARC ISRAEL SELLEM)
Children on their way to school
(photo credit: MARC ISRAEL SELLEM)
We all know the benefits of seeing the positive in life. Teaching our kids the benefits of gratitude does a lot more than you would think. In general, people who take the time to appreciate things in their lives are more energetic, are able to sleep better, are more compassionate and kind to others and even have improved immune systems.
An “attitude of gratitude” seriously improves your satisfaction with life. Kids, particularly teens, often get wrapped up in their lives, which may be filled with drama and stress. As parents, we can help them to see things differently simply by finding ways to encourage them to see what happy things they actually have in their lives, including the people that enhance their lives.
Expressing gratitude toward others helps our kids to establish stronger ties with their peers. When self-confidence is an issue – as it often is, particularly with teens – encouraging them to see the positive in their peers and actually express it to them brings them closer together, encouraging friendships.
Expressing gratitude actually has a positive effect on your health. According to a 2012 study published in the Personality and Individual Differences journal, people who find things to be grateful about in life tend to be healthier, take better care of themselves, exercise more and generally have a “finger on the pulse” of their overall health.
Gratitude also improves psychological health. Robert A. Emmons, PhD, a leading gratitude researcher, links gratitude with well-being physiologically “by reducing toxic emotions, ranging from envy and resentment to frustration and regret.” This affects their ability to be happy and reduces depression. This is invaluable to the mental health of teens, who are often overly emotional.
Another important factor is that gratitude encourages empathy and diminishes tendencies to be aggressive. According to a 2012 University of Kentucky study, those with an “attitude of gratitude” had a higher tolerance for others who were insensitive to them – even developing empathy toward the other.
Gratitude can even affect your sleep. According to a 2011 study published in Applied Psychology: Health and Well-Being, one should “spend just 15 minutes jotting down a few grateful sentiments before bed, and you may sleep better and longer.” Considering that journaling is highly recommended to everyone, particularly teens who highly benefit from reflecting on their daily lives, adding an element of gratitude is a natural progression that adds an important element to overall mental and physical health.
A 2014 study published in the Journal of Applied Sport Psychology showed that self-esteem is greatly affected by taking the time to acknowledge things you are grateful for. When you notice positive things you are grateful for, especially people in your life, you find yourself wishing good things to happen to them and are less apt to wish negative outcomes for others due to jealousy and feelings of insecurity.
Regarding dealing with post-trauma victims, a 2003 study published in the Journal of Personality and Social Psychology showed that resiliency is furthered by allowing yourself to recognize things you are actually grateful for. Just as I have suggested in the past that for every criticism we have toward our kids we should express twice as many positive traits, the same can be said about negative attitudes. For every complaint our kids have toward other people and situations, we can ask them to come up with two or more examples of people and situations that they are actually grateful for.
Eastern Washington University researchers found that grateful people share key traits.
“They feel a sense of abundance in their lives, recognize the contributions of others to their well-being, recognize and enjoy life’s small pleasures and acknowledge the importance of experiencing and expressing gratitude.”
The benefits of practicing gratitude are nearly endless. Gratitude doesn’t need to be reserved only for momentous occasions. Our teens may be overjoyed when they develop a romantic relationship, succeed on a test or in a sports game, but the real test is to be thankful for something as simple as connecting with a friend, a sunny day or getting along with you, their parent. Research by Emmons, author of Thanks!: How the New Science of Gratitude Can Make You Happier, shows that simply keeping a gratitude journal – regularly writing brief reflections on moments for which we’re thankful – can significantly increase well-being and life satisfaction.
Whereas teens are pursuing independence and don’t want to necessarily hear what we have to say about anything, let alone acting grateful, we need to find ways for our teens to appreciate the good they have in their lives and to do so in creative ways. Sometimes this can be promoted through encouraging them to help their peers. This sense of altruism can naturally promote a feeling of gratitude. You can put them in charge of creating a gratitude tradition in the family, such as a gratitude jar. They can even use humor and sarcasm in their expression of gratitude. This can help them to deal with challenging situations where we can help them to find something to be grateful for even if it is being grateful that nothing even worse happened. Actually sharing their lists aloud has an even stronger effect on our kids. It helps them to internalize what they are sharing.
Emmons, the world’s leading expert on the science of gratitude, shares that just going through the motions is not effective if you don’t first make the choice to adopt the attitude of being happier and appreciative. Whereas some experts suggest writing only five things in brief sentences that we are grateful for, detailing certain special things or occasions seems to have more of an effect on our general moods and well-being. Focusing on people as opposed to things or events also has more of an impact. Another tool is getting our kids to think about what their lives would be like without certain things they take for granted. Acknowledging unexpected surprise events also seems to promote a greater level of gratitude.
Gratitude comes down to being mindful. All of us have heard about the value of mindfulness, noticing every moment and “being here now.” If we help our kids to be present and mindful of the world around them, we are promoting their mental and physical health and helping them to grow into appreciative young adults.
This will benefit them in everything they hope to achieve in their lives.