Gratitude is about noticing and actively appreciating the good things in your life. It’s a mash-up of attention and savoring—with an extra kick of action.
A Two-fer and a Three-fer
Just noticing a good thing (“oh, there’s steak for dinner”) isn’t gratitude. Noticing and savoring (“oh, there’s steak for dinner and it smells great!”) is the next level—the “two-fer” aspect of gratitude. But the extra kick—the three-fer—comes when you add action to the equation: You actively appreciate that good thing by expressing your appreciation. In this case, it’s by saying to whomever’s cooking that steak, “Wow, thank you for making that steak. It smells great!”
Think for a moment about what really happened here. You’ve turned your attention toward a positive focus and provided yourself with the cascade of neurochemistry that good feelings bring. But by expressing gratitude, you’ve created an environment where someone else can notice that good moment, savor it, and experience that same flood of positive sensation, too. Three-fer exchanges like these give both parties a huge shot of positive feelings. It’s this pro-social aspect of gratitude that makes it so powerful.
We can bring kids and parents into the lab, sit them in front of a computer, and do attentional training with them every day for a month. They’d dutifully press the little red button every time they saw the number combination that they’re supposed to focus on. And they’d get better and better at building their attentional muscle.
But it’s no fun. Much more fun is to start practicing gratitude. Not only are we improving attention skills and boosting our positive emotions, but also we’re spreading that improvement to others.
Gratitude can take the form of words—“thank you” being the most obvious and always effective—but you can be more elaborate in commenting on the particular strength a person is showing, be it cooking skills, thoughtfulness, creativity, or any of the 118 strengths listed here. Strength-Based Parenting itself is a way of raising your child in a manner that shows appreciation and gratitude for who she is and helps her appreciate the strengths in others, too.
Or your appreciation can take the form of an action: appreciating that a restaurant server has to clear hundreds of plates a day and as a family stacking up the plates on the restaurant table to help her clear them, bringing a coworker a cup of coffee because you notice he’s having a super-busy day, saying hi to the new kid at school who’s looking a bit forlorn, writing a thank-you note to an advisor for writing a college recommendation letter. These are little actions of gratitude that say, “I see and appreciate you.”
Practicing gratitude as you go about your daily life models appreciation in action for your child. Praising your child is a beautiful way to show him exactly how wonderful it feels to receive expressions of gratitude. Gratitude is other-directed: We notice something, it stirs us, and we feel compelled to communicate that sensation to another—whether to a person, a spiritual entity, or the universe. When we feel appreciation without communicating it, we might call that awe or wonder. In a paper I wrote last year with one of my PhD students, we called it gratefulness, as distinct from the social quality of gratitude.
We all want to feel noticed and appreciated. When we’re truly experiencing gratitude, I feel that we are expressing our higher selves. It costs so little, but it means so much to so many.
Gratitude Is Good for You
Learning how to direct my attention toward gratitude played an important part in my own healing journey from anxiety and depression by helping me reframe events, find and appreciate the lessons, and discover benefits I might not otherwise have discovered.
There’s a bucket load of research showing the importance of gratitude for our psychological health. It’s linked to a host of positive indicators such as self-discipline, emotional warmth, altruism, positive mood, self-esteem, and life satisfaction. People who practice gratitude report feeling less bitterness and depression over time (I dare you to try to feel bitter and grateful in exactly the same moment).
Alex Wood, PhD, of the University of Stirling has found that people who feel grateful just prior to sleep fall into slumber more quickly, stay asleep longer, and report better sleep quality. For my family and me, that study was life-changing.
I used to go to bed with so many things on my mind that I’d repeatedly turn on the light to write items on a to-do list that I kept next to the bed, afraid I’d forget them by the next day. Going to sleep took hours. That was the “pre-gratitude Lea.”
But after reading about Dr. Wood’s work, I started doing a simple exercise to change what researchers call “pre-sleep cognition”—that is, what we think about just before we fall asleep. Instead of thinking about all the things I was worried about, I swapped in a pre-sleep cognition of gratitude by thinking of the many things I’m grateful for: the hug Emily gave me that day …the joke Nick told that made the whole family laugh …a good conversation with Matt …the roof over my head. Instead of “I haven’t done enough,” the mental message is, “Things are OK. Life’s pretty good.”
Aiming and sustaining my attention on things I’m grateful for calms my body and mind. Often I fall asleep in the middle of making my mental gratitude list! It feels lovely. But underneath it all, I’m changing my brain, building a new attentional pattern of noticing the good things. The more I train my brain to see the good, the easier it becomes to see my kids’ strengths and my own.
For years, I’ve done this exercise with Nick and Emily at bedtime, inviting them to tell me some things that made them feel thankful during the day. I want them to be able cultivate this strength of gratitude because it makes them better as people, and it makes them feel better about themselves.
Gratitude also builds our relationships. Psychologists classify gratitude as a pro-social emotion: it has positive effects on you and others. It’s deeply programmed into us because there was a primal evolutionary reason for it. Fear makes us flee the predator. Anger makes us fight back. Curiosity makes us search out a new food source. Love makes us bond, mate, and procreate to perpetuate the species. Why did gratitude get built into our emotional highway?
Evolutionary psychologists suggest that gratitude created a bond between individuals who weren’t in the same family/genetic circle, building a stronger community by fostering cooperative behavior. Suppose you and I are hanging out on the savannah and you offer me some tasty food you’ve gathered. You didn’t have to do that, since I’m not related to you. If I get a warm glow of gratitude and am compelled to share that with you, whether through words or actions—known as reciprocity, or returning the favor in some way—this exchange fosters positive feelings in both of us, making us likely to share resources again. The more we do that, the stronger and more effective our community becomes.
Perhaps that’s why every major discipline that has studied society and humanity has mentioned the importance of gratitude. Every major religion preaches its importance, whether toward God or one another. Sociologists say we cannot function as a society without the cooperative behavior cemented by gratitude. Roman philosopher Cicero called it “the parent” of all the virtues.
Exercise: Gateways to Gratitude
We can train ourselves and our children to be more grateful, and the process is as enjoyable as the results. It’s simply training the brain to detect patterns—something our brains are very good at—aiming and sustaining attention on good things. It’s strength-based training, too, because gratitude is a character strength. And, as I’ve said, showing appreciation for our child’s strengths models gratitude. Here are a few ways to practice gratitude with your child:
1. What Went Well (WWW)
As I mentioned earlier, every night, when Nick and Emily are tucked into bed, just before they go to sleep, I invite them to tell me three things that made them feel thankful that day. This is referred to as the “What Went Well” (WWW) technique. It’s a popular exercise in many families.
2. Thankful Thursdays
Each Thursday at our house we make time to talk about things we feel thankful for, from big items like completing assignments, winning awards, and getting support from others to everyday events like eating a meal together, having a laugh in the car, and enjoying good weather. If you’re short on ideas for what to say on Thankful Thursday, the website 1000 Awesome Things is really helpful for reminding you of all the small things that put a smile on your face—like finding the chocolate with the particular filling you wanted in the chocolate box. I love looking at this site for a quick emotional pick-me-up.
3. Gratitude Jar/Graffiti Board
Set out an empty jar and ask your family to put in notes about the things they feel grateful for. Once the jar is full, you can thank your family by taking them to a café for a treat and tipping out all the notes to re-read and re-live the good times. This is a great exercise in reminiscent savoring. Or try a gratitude graffiti board: a whiteboard you can place in your kitchen or family room for all family members to write or draw the things they feel grateful for. You can also do this using a corkboard and sticky notes.
4. Gratitude Stickies and Letters
Speaking of sticky notes, in my house I use them as “gratitude surprises.” When I feel thankful for something that Matt, Nick, or Emily have done or simply thankful for who they are, I leave a note for them on their pillow (the stickies don’t really stick to the pillows, but I bend them a bit so they’ll stay—and my family has learned to be on the lookout for them). In a lovely example of the value of role modeling, Emily recently left a gratitude sticky note on my pillow thanking me for helping her bake cookies, complete with a drawing of a cookie.
A longer form of the sticky note is the gratitude letter. You can encourage your children to write a thank-you letter to someone who has made a difference in her life. It might be a relative, friend, mentor, teacher, or someone else she knows. Ask her to really think about the unique thing that person did for her and to write about that specifically. Encourage your child to personally deliver the letter and read it to the other person (or read it on the phone or over Skype if the person lives far away).
Numerous studies have confirmed the power of the gratitude letter for increasing life satisfaction and positive feelings, including with teens and younger kids. Martin Seligman did the first such study; then Jeffrey Froh, PhD, repeated it with teenagers.
For kids writing a thank-you letter, it’s fine to keep it simple, specific, and heartfelt. It might start with saying thank you for whatever it was. Then with how the child felt when receiving the good thing from that person. Then something specific about why that thing was so wonderful. And ending with thank you again, with the child’s signature.
5. Gratitude Journal
Think of a gratitude journal as an extended version of a gratitude letter, but written for your eyes only, to put your attention on the things you are grateful for in your life. Don’t worry, it’s not about writing copious entries or taking lots of time—in fact, just the opposite—a few words or sentences will do. And if words aren’t your first choice for expression, get creative by drawing what you’re grateful for.
6. Gratitude Walk
Go for a walk around your neighborhood with your kids and together point out the things you feel grateful for in the area where you live. The park where you picnic, jog, or play that is also home to songbirds, gardens, and beautiful trees; the stop for the bus that takes the family to work or school each day; the bakery that sells tasty cakes; the market with the friendly grocer; the lovely flowers in a neighbor’s garden; your local school or church—all can trigger feelings of gratitude and thankfulness. Try this with your older children as a fifteen-minute study break to get the attention-sharpening benefits of moderate aerobic exercise and to train their brain for gratitude. I also do this with Nick and Emily when we travel so we can remember the great places we’ve visited on our vacations.
7. Acts of Gratitude
We’ve talked about how gratitude can be actions as well as words of thanks. Talk with your children about actions they can take to show appreciation for others. Here’s a story from one parent:
Jess gets energized by acts of kindness, and it is something that we value as a family. I want the kids to know that doing kindness for others gives them a big boost in their own well-being. Jess decided she wanted to use her strengths of kindness and creativity more often.
We went to the flower shop and bought flowers. Jess wrapped her flowers individually and creatively and put them in a basket. Her brothers kept the flowers in one bunch. At first they left the flowers on neighbors’ doorsteps, knocked, and ran away. But the impact wasn’t there. We then went around the neighborhood and knocked on doors, giving residents flowers and saying, “These are to brighten up your day.” The kids got such an amazing lift from peoples’ comments and reactions.
When we got home, I wanted them to write down the comments so they could savor them a little longer and really let them sink in. One of the best was, “My mother has died and I was sitting in my chair feeling so depressed—and you brought me these flowers to make me happy.” Someone else said, “Just for nothing? For no money?!” Someone else said, “Thank you. Now I will go and do something kind for someone else!”
That night Jess told her friend (our neighbors) about the project. They got excited and wanted to do it. So the girls made cupcakes and delivered them to people in the neighborhood.
The kids still talk about this and the impact it had, and they want to do it again. I encourage everyday acts of kindness. Most weekends they walk to the bakery and I ask them to go in past Des, who’s ninety-six years old. They ask him how he is and what cake he feels like today. Then they buy it for him and bring it to him. He tells them the same stories every time about his wife and the war, but they know it lifts his day.