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Grateful children tend to be happier, psychologists say

By Carolyn Butler / Special to The Washington Post

Published: November 24. 2011 4:00AM PST

Thanking people is good manners — at least that’s what I’ve tried to impress on my kids — but it may also lead to better, healthier lives.

“We know that grateful kids are happier and more satisfied with their lives,” says Jeffrey Froh, an assistant professor of psychology at Hofstra University who focuses on the topic. “They report better relationships with friends and family, higher GPAs, less materialism, less envy and less depression, along with a desire to connect to their community and to want to give back.” He adds that there’s an even larger field of research on adults showing that being thankful has numerous psychological, social and even physical benefits such as lower blood pressure.

Luckily, it is possible to teach gratitude. One of Froh’s studies found that early adolescents who simply “counted their blessings” in a journal every day for two weeks were more appreciative than those who didn’t, as well as more optimistic and more satisfied with their lives.

In a forthcoming study, he and his co-authors also found that schoolchildren who were exposed to a specific “gratitude curriculum” reported more appreciation and happiness than those who didn’t get the lessons, even up to five months later. They were also much more likely to act on their feelings, writing 80 percent more thank-you notes for a school event than the control group.

Despite the obvious advantages, it can be challenging to raise grateful kids in today’s society, with so much media focus on money, fame, status and the latest and greatest of everything. But that doesn’t mean it’s not worth a try, says clinical psychologist Eleanor Mackey of Children’s National Medical Center.

Some expert advice to help you along the way:

• Walk the walk: Above all, parents need to be good role models when it comes to expressing appreciation, whether that means thanking strangers for holding the door or thanking your son or daughter for a chore done without being asked.

“Having the experience of being on the receiving end of gratitude can help children recognize that it’s a nice thing for people to feel like what they’ve done has been acknowledged,” says Mackey.

• Accentuate the positive:Froh recommends helping kids to make a list of all the good things in their own lives to be thankful for. (This can be especially helpful for teenagers who often focus on stuff their friends have that they don’t.) “Just try to highlight, very gently, the good they already have going on in other areas of life, while not invalidating their desire for something,” he says.

• Curtail commerce: Though ‘tis the season, Froh suggests replacing mall trips with non-acquisitive events such as going to the park, playing sports or spending quality family time at home. “It’s important to orient kids towards the values and needs that matter, getting away from those that don’t,” he explains. “Filling them with a sense of all the awe and wonder in the world . . . helps them realize that there’s a lot more to be grateful for” than new cellphones or toys.

• Help them help others: It’s almost never too early to introduce the idea that not everybody in the world has everything they need or want. Take small kids to drop off presents at a local hospital or animal rescue league; older ones can volunteer at organizations around the area, although simply lending a hand to an elderly neighbor who needs help shoveling snow or grocery shopping can be just as impactful, says Mackey.


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