Jeffrey J. Froh, PsyD, Associate Professor of Psychology, Hofstra University
in the Spring 2015 Hofstra Horizons
Matthew, a 12-year-old middle school student who lives in a wealthy suburb, had a home life quite different from that of his peers: he and his mother had found themselves in a long-term shelter because of a financial crisis, and Matthew had to commute to school by public bus rather than the German imports his friends’ parents used to drop off their children. As winter approached, Matthew continued to come to school dressed in jeans and T-shirts with just a thin sweatshirt for covering, prompting one teacher, Mrs. Riebe, to give him a wool sports jacket from the donation bin at her church. It was a kind gesture, but a sixth grader wearing a sport jacket in a prosperous public school means one thing: a bully target. Matthew, however, wasn’t bullied, nor was he embarrassed about wearing an oversized jacket. Instead, he smiled from ear to ear. “Check out this cool jacket Mrs. Riebe gave me. I love it. I can’t stop thanking her,” he’d say to his friends and other teachers. His infectious positivity was so appealing that even other kids recognized and respected it.
The circumstances in which Matthew lived might make many children feel envious, cheated, angry and resentful. Yet Matthew felt incredibly grateful to his teachers and friends because his mother, despite the constraints on her time and finances, had instilled a sense of gratitude in Matthew, and this had a profound effect on his approach to life. My colleagues and I collected nearly two thousand essays on what gratitude means to teens, Matthew’s essay among them. He wrote, “My life wouldn’t be the same without the people who’ve helped me succeed. I’m thankful to God and my family, friends, and even my teachers for helping me improve my life.”
This story of an adolescent who lives below the material standards of most of his peers and has to make much more of an effort to get to school and participate in extracurricular activities is a small but profound example of the impact that gratitude can have on a young person’s emotional well-being, relationships, spirituality and success. In fact, my experience working with at-risk children and adolescents supports this assumption. But Matthew is no ordinary kid because he has learned to harness a virtue that’s been long-revered, but historically underappreciated: gratitude.
I met Matthew while working as a school psychologist. Seeing him smile from ear to ear while wearing a wool sport jacket intended for a much older gentleman is burned in my memory forever. It was a defining moment for me. How did Matthew become so grateful? Why isn’t he envious of the other kids wearing designer labels? Does he even realize that his new jacket is totally uncool? My quest for understanding gratitude development in youth began in that hallway.
After reviewing the psychological literature on gratitude in kids, I found noticeable holes that needed filling. One such hole was the lack of research on gratitude in the early stages of life. Until 2005, there were no studies that I knew of examining gratitude and well-being in children. Then, in 2006, psychology professors and researchers Nansook Park and Christopher Peterson conducted a content analysis of parents’ descriptions of children’s strengths, gratitude being one. They found that of the 24 strengths examined, gratitude had the strongest relation to life satisfaction. Witnessing gratitude’s power in the children and adolescents I worked with and counseled, coupled with this latest finding, I decided to commit myself to a research program looking to understand the measurement, development, and enhancement of gratitude in youth.
My Past Research: Gratitude Interventions for Youth
Perhaps the most commonly used technique for boosting gratitude — among adults and youth alike — is a gratitude journal. For my first study on gratitude in kids, I asked middle school students simply to list five things for which there were grateful daily for two weeks, and I compared these students to others who were writing about hassles in their life or basic daily life events. Keeping a gratitude journal was related to more optimism and life satisfaction and to fewer physical complaints and negative emotions. Most significantly, compared to the other students, students who kept a gratitude journal reported more satisfaction with their school experience (i.e., find school interesting, feel good at school, think they are learning a lot, and are eager to go to school) immediately after the two-week period, a result that held up even three weeks later (see Figure 1). Expressions of school satisfaction included: “I am thankful for school,” “I am thankful for my education,” and “I am thankful that my school has a track team and that I got accepted into the honor society.” School satisfaction is positively related to academic and social success. Many early and late adolescents, however, indicate significant amounts of dissatisfaction with their school experience. Therefore, inducing gratitude in students via keeping a gratitude journal may be a viable intervention for mitigating negative views of school and academics while promoting positive views about school and academics. Holding such a positive view predisposes students to improving both their academic and social competence and may help motivate them to get the most out of school.
Another exercise we’ve tested is the gratitude visit, in which students write a letter to someone who had helped them but whom they’d never properly thanked; the students read their letter to him or her in person, then later discuss their experience with others who also completed a gratitude visit. To illustrate, one 17-year-old girl wrote and read the following letter to her mother:
“I would like to take this time to thank you for all that you do on a daily basis and have been doing my whole life. … I am so thankful that I get to drive in with you [to school] every day and … for all the work you do for our church. … I thank you for being there whenever I need you. I thank you that when the world is against me that you stand up for me and you are my voice when I can’t speak for myself. I thank you for caring about my life and wanting to be involved … for the words of encouragement and hugs of love that get me through every storm. I thank you for sitting through countless games in the cold and rain and still having the energy to make dinner and all the things you do. I thank you for raising me in a Christian home where I have learned who God was and how to serve him. … I am so blessed to have you as my mommy and I have no idea what I would have done without you.”
Findings from this research indicated that students who began the study low in positive emotions reported more gratitude and positive emotions immediately after the study, and greater positive emotions two months later, compared with students who didn’t do a gratitude visit.
Building on this research, and research by colleagues, we have identified several key principles that adults can use to promote gratitude in kids — principles that we’ve incorporated into our own gratitude curriculum. This curriculum is intended to subtly instill grateful thinking in youth without requiring an explicit focus on gratitude. It emphasizes three key principles that can support a gratitude journal, a gratitude visit, or simply the practice of gratefulness in everyday life:
Notice intentions. Try to encourage youth to appreciate the thought behind gifts they receive — to consider how someone noticed their need and acted on it. Research suggests this goes a long way toward cultivating “an attitude of gratitude” among children and adults alike. For kids in particular, knowing that others believe in them and their potential motivates self-improvement. To get children and adolescents to reflect on the intentions behind the gifts they receive, adults can prompt them with a question such as, “Can you think of a time when a friend (parent, teacher, or coach) noticed something you needed (e.g., lunch), or remembered something you care about (e.g., collecting feathers) and then provided you with those things?” As kids give examples, adults could have them elaborate: “How did you know they helped you on purpose?” “How did you feel after they helped you?”
Appreciate costs. We also find it important to emphasize that when someone is helpful, that person usually sacrifices time or effort to provide the help. For example, adults could ask, “What are some things your friend gave up to help you with that project?” or say, “Wow, for your friend to come play tag with you, he had to stop playing soccer, which I know is his favorite game.” An adult could also point out “how nice it was for that child to let you use the computer instead.”
Recognize the value of benefits. Adults can also foster gratitude by reminding youth that when others help us, they are providing us with “gifts.” This is one reason why, in our gratitude curriculum, we prompt children to focus on the personal value of the kind acts of others. One way adults can bring this up is to have kids complete the sentence stem “My day (or life) is better because …” and give examples such as, “… my teacher helped me when I didn’t understand something,” or “… my coach showed me how to be a better basketball player.”
Studies of our gratitude curriculum have found that children’s ability to think gratefully can be strengthened, and with this change comes improvements in their moods. A weekly version of the curriculum produced these effects up to five months later. A daily version had immediate effects (two days later) and led children to write 80 percent more thank-you cards to their PTA (see Figure 2); even their teachers found them happier.
My Current Research: Gratitude and Delinquency
After conducting these gratitude intervention studies and learning that children and adolescents can indeed become more grateful with deliberate effort, I became interested in gratitude’s effect on youths’ psychological and social well-being, as well as their academic success, via the natural development of gratitude. I therefore led a longitudinal study where we followed about 1,000 adolescents for four years, surveying them at multiple time points. While we found that adolescents who grew in gratitude over these four years were more likely to be happier, have supportive mentors, and develop a sense of meaning and purpose in life, we also found that growing in gratitude helped kids develop character.
Specifically, teens that grew in gratitude over the four years were less likely to visit the principal’s office, bring alcohol or drugs to school, skip school, get suspended from school, and get expelled from school. These teens were also less likely to be antisocial (e.g., hit and tease other kids) and more likely to be prosocial (e.g., help a kid with school work or include an excluded peer in play) four years later (see Figure 3). Further, teens that grew in gratitude also became less antisocial and more prosocial simultaneously throughout the four years. These findings are the first I know of showing that gratitude not only makes kids feel good, but also makes them do good.
Seeing gratitude’s beneficial effect on the children and adolescents I work with inspired me to want to create a national dialogue about gratitude in youth. After accumulating a large amount of empirical evidence solidly supporting gratitude’s role in positive youth development, I decided that the next step was for me to write a trade book intended for public consumption, yet steeped enough in science to please even the most hard-nosed empiricist. In March 2014 my book Making Grateful Kids: The Science of Building Character (Templeton Press) was released. This book provides parents, teachers, and any adult who works with youth with 32 scientifically supported practical strategies for making kids grateful that can be used in daily interactions. Following these strategies, and with patience and persistence, we can significantly influence the children in our own personal worlds, and, if we do, that will influence programs, clubs, schools, and other institutions in the community too. So I ask you to accept my challenge, and dedicate yourself to helping a child become more grateful. Our society needs this more than ever. Now’s the time.