What do we mean by gratitude?
Gratitude is the feeling and expression of being thankful. You can be thankful for things or people or experiences in your life. You may be thankful to someone in particular or just generally appreciate something in your life.
However, we often take things for granted. We get used to all the choices we have, the people who help us live our daily lives and the abundance of our lives. In our materialistic world, we often think about what we don’t have rather than what we do have.
Gratitude unlocks the fullness of life. It turns what we have into enough and more. It turns denial into acceptance, chaos to order, confusion to clarity. It can turn a meal into a feast, a house into a home, a stranger into a friend. Gratitude makes sense of our past, brings peace for today and creates a vision for tomorrow.
Why is gratitude important?
Research has shown that people who feel and express gratitude are more likely to flourish - they are more contented with their lives, they have better relationships and also report better physical health. Even just the act of trying to find things to be grateful for has been shown to increase happiness and wellbeing, even if you find it difficult! But it does get easier the more you practice!
Gratitude is also a positive feeling. Research suggests that having positive feelings make us more open to new ideas and new people. This helps us to become more creative and more able to think of ways to overcome problems. Positive feelings also help us cope better with stress.
Gratitude helps us savour and appreciate the experiences in our lives, past and present. When we have a grateful attitude, we find it easier to overcome negative feelings such as anger, hurt, envy, distrust and resentment. We don’t have to focus on all the things that have gone wrong in our past - although we can learn from our mistakes, they don’t make us who we are. We can learn to focus on all the good things in our lives and make our lives happier right now.
Though no one can go back and make a brand new start, anyone can start from now and make a brand new ending.
Research on gratitude in children and young people is still relatively new but is showing encouraging results. Research suggests that encouraging young people to ‘count their blessings’ improves their ability to be grateful and makes them more likely to be happy at school. We know that children and young people who are happy at school are more likely to enjoy learning and achieve to the best of their ability.
A study by Jeffrey Froh and his colleagues involved over 200 young people aged around 12 years old. Every day for 2 weeks, one group of young people was asked to make a list of 5 things they were grateful for; a second group was asked to make a list of 5 hassles; and a third group wasn’t asked to make any lists. The study had a positive benefit for the ‘gratitude’ group - most importantly, this group reported greater satisfaction with school than the other two groups. The researchers suggest that perhaps, to keep the activity fresh, the gratitude list could be written just once a week.
Froh, J. J., Sefick, W. J. & Emmons, R. A. (2008). Counting blessings in early adolescents: An experimental study of gratitude and subjective well-being. Journal of School Psychology, 46: 213-233.
Learning to have a grateful attitude
Gratitude is an attitude - a way of looking at things. We often develop gratitude by having to cope with something more difficult or challenging than we are used to, or by seeing what someone else has to cope with and realising how lucky we are.
For example, we often don’t truly appreciate our home comforts until we have been out camping in the rain for a couple of nights! If we are bed-ridden for a long time with an illness, we may start to see the changing seasons from our window in a way we never saw them before. We can be moaning about something, then see a news report about families devastated by war, famine or earthquakes, and realise how grateful we should be for our relatively stable lives.
Often it is people with poor health or very little money who show us how to be grateful. Consider this reaction from a young person after visiting a homeless shelter:
"The kids were all so happy there. They don’t have anything, but they are still happy. Maybe they know more than I do"
Girl, aged 13
How to help children and young people to be more grateful
- Show gratitude yourself. Let the children and young people you live with or work with see you showing thanks to other people on a regular basis, for example, other children, neighbours, teachers, colleagues, shop assistants.
- Let them see you being grateful and appreciative, regularly, for little things like your cup of coffee or the sunshine.
- Be grateful to children and young people for showing kindness or being quiet and hard-working or cheerful and full of energy.
- When a child or young person is grateful, notice it and appreciate it. For example, say "That was thoughtful of you to thank your friend for helping you with your maths - I’m sure it made her feel good."
- Encourage children and young people to search for the silver lining in every cloud. If something goes wrong, ask them what they can find to be grateful for. But make sure you also acknowledge that they are upset or frustrated. For example, if they fail a test at school, say "I’m sorry you didn’t pass that test. That must make you feel upset." Give them time to express their emotion, then you could ask: "Is there anything you can think of to be thankful about?" You can prompt them to realise that tests help them and their teacher see what they need more help with, or they may see that they have to concentrate more on their work. Or you could remind them to be thankful that they passed a different test, or that they have people who care about them whether they passed the test or not.
- Encourage children and young people to show gratitude by writing texts, emails or cards to say thanks. This can be for a gift, simply to tell someone how much they mean to them or to say thanks for something that someone did for them.
We do not have a vehicle in our culture for telling the people who mean the most to us how thankful we are that they are on the planet - and even when we are moved to do so, we shrink in embarrassment.
Martin Seligman is a Professor of Positive Psychology. He describes in his book "Authentic Happiness" how he organises Gratitude Evenings to teach the tremendous power of gratitude to his students. He asks each student to bring a guest - someone who has been very important in their lives but whom they have never properly thanked. The student writes an account of what this person means to them and reads it aloud at the evening. Apparently these evenings are the high point of the course.
Seligman, M.E.P. (2003). Authentic Happiness: Using the New Positive Psychology to Realize Your Potential for Lasting Fulfilment. London: Nicholas Brealey Publishing.
- Share gratitude daily. Make time in the morning or at your evening meal or at group discussion time in class to share at least one thing for which each person is grateful, e.g. "What is one good thing that happened for you today?" You can also talk about one thing that was difficult that day. But it is good to start with being thankful because it helps increase positive emotions, which opens your mind to help you think of ideas for solving your problems.
- Say thank you before eating family meals, school meals, or snacks at youth clubs. This helps children and young people to appreciate the food we have to eat. Children and young people in a family, class or group can take turns to make up the words of thanks before each meal.
Here are some activities you could try to encourage children and young people to be grateful. Try them yourself too and see what happens!
Good stuff diary
Suggest to a child, young person or group that, before they go to sleep, they take a notepad or a special diary and try writing down 3 things that they are thankful for on that day, for example:
On days when it seems that not much has happened, the things can be much more simple or general, for example:
Use a big piece of poster board or strong paper and write "For this I am Grateful", or similar words, across the top. Put it up on the wall and keep it up for a week or even a month. Ask everyone in the family or class or club to write or draw something on the poster that they are grateful for. This could be something big (like winning a football match or getting an A in a test) or something small (like having a fun walk with the dog or enjoying the sunshine). Continue to add to it every day. At the end of the week or month, take it down and take turns to read aloud what was written. This helps show children and young people that focusing on finding things to be thankful for, reminds us of all the things we have.
What Went Well?
This activity can be used for groups or with individuals - or you can do it yourself! The more often you do it, the easier it becomes. Over time it will encourage a happier outlook on life.
Write "WWW" in the middle of a page of flip chart paper and ask the child, young person or group what went well for them today, or this week. Brainstorm as many positive things that happened. On difficult days this can be harder but it is an important exercise for remembering all the good things in our lives - some of which can be very simple, such as having a warm home, friends to play with, good food to eat, etc. Younger children may prefer to draw a picture of what they are happy about or thankful for.
Think about all the good things in your life that make you feel thankful - call them ‘Thankful Things’.
What you need:
What you do:
Some things to talk about together: