We all think of gratitude as benefiting the person on the receiving end. However, is gratitude also good for the person who is grateful?
Robert Emmons, the world's leading scientific expert on gratitude, has been studying its effects and the results are very convincing. Dr. Emmons has studied more than one thousand people, from ages eight to eighty, and found that people who practice gratitude consistently report a host of benefits:
• Less pain
• Improved sleep
• Higher levels of positive emotions
• More focused
• Greater confidence
• Greater empathy
• More forgiving
• Increased connection with others
The social benefits are especially significant here because gratitude is a social emotion. You see, first, gratitude is an affirmation of goodness. We affirm that there is good in the world. This doesn’t mean that life is perfect; it doesn’t ignore challenges, negative situations, burdens, and hassles. However, when we look at life as a whole, gratitude highlights and emphasizes the positives in our life.
The second part of gratitude is figuring out what is contributing to the goodness in our lives. We recognize the sources of this goodness as being outside of ourselves. Gratitude involves a humble dependence on others. We acknowledge that other people and things give us many gifts that make our lives better.
What good is gratitude?
So what’s really behind Dr. Emmons’ research results—why might gratitude have these transformative effects on people’s lives?
I think there are several important reasons, but I want to highlight four in particular.
We want to feel more gratitude—and we want our students to do the same—because gratitude is so closely associated with happiness that the two are practically indistinguishable from one another. The opposite of gratitude is entitlement, which brings negative feelings like disappointment and frustration. But when we feel grateful, our world fills with positive emotions like love, compassion, enthusiasm, and confidence—and our satisfaction with life soars.
What we’ve learned from the gratitude interventions that don’t work is that one size definitely doesn’t fit all. So how can we help an adolescents become happier through gratitude?
The first thing to remember is that teenagers’ unique developmental task is to be independent: to break away from you, the adult who is asking you to appreciate what they do for you.
So every time teens take your advice—about how to be happier, or by following your instructions for practicing gratitude—they are setting themselves up to remain dependent on you. Which doesn’t feel good. Herein lies the problem.
This doesn’t mean that we should give up on teaching our students to feel and express more gratitude in their lives. Here are some suggestions for practicing gratitude with your students:
Below are some of the specific steps I like to recommend for overcoming the challenges to gratitude.
A Gratitude Journal can be just listing just five things for which you’re grateful every week. This practice works, I think, because it consciously, intentionally focuses our attention on developing more grateful thinking and on eliminating ungrateful thoughts. It helps guard against taking things for granted; instead, we see gifts in life as new and exciting.