Gratitude - a new school subject ?
From early childhood, parents train their children to say “thank you” if they receive something from somebody. Gratitude does not only mean saying “thank you” to recognize generosity or service but to life in general. Positive psychologists understand gratitude as an action and a feeling of appreciation for someone or something, acknowledging the goodness in one’s life, which produces lasting positivity towards life (PPP editorial team, 2017). The definitions of gratitude are so numerous that I decided to refer to the Harvard Medical School definition (Harvard Health Publishing, 2011): Gratitude is “a thankful appreciation for what an individual receives, whether tangible or intangible. With gratitude, people acknowledge the goodness in their lives … “
Children growing up in Western society forget to be thankful for the essential in life.
Our society does not consist of hunters-gatherers anymore. The majority of people live beyond the stage of survival - fulfilling basic physiological needs and having achieved safety and security, as Maslow would word it (see figure 1). The higher we climb up the pyramid, the more we unlearn to appreciate the essential things in life. A teenager complaining about the fact that he/she is the only one in his/her peer group who does not have the new I-Phone 8, did he/she forget all the things in his/her life to be thankful for? Like waking up every morning full of energy, having healthy parents, enough to eat, being able to study and living in a peaceful environment…
Why the ability of being grateful is (at least) as important as acquiring basic maths skills in life?
Philosophers and spiritual leaders recognized and embraced the importance of gratitude in life a long time ago whereas psychology researchers are latecomers to this subject. The world’s leading scientist in this context is Dr Robert Emmons from the University of California, Davis. Together with his research team, Emmons studied the complex phenomenon of gratitude and its positive outcomes (Emmons & McCullough, 2003). Cultivating gratitude was scientifically proved to have a variety of measurable benefits on:
- Physical health: immune systems, lower blood pressure, more exercise, better sleep, etc.
- Psychological well-being: positive emotions, alertness, higher optimism and happiness, lower levels of depression and anxiety, higher life satisfaction, etc.
- Social benefits: higher generosity and helpfulness, forgiveness, stronger interpersonal relationships, openness, lower neuroticism, etc.
As far as positive youth development is concerned, in a study with African American adolescents gratitude has been associated to higher levels of protective factors and lower levels of risk factors (Ma, Kibler, & Sly, 2013):
- Protective factors:
- academic interest
- academic performance
- extra-cirrucular activities
- family relationships
- Risk factors:
- sexual intimacy (likelihood of engaging in sexual intimacy during secondary school)
- sexual intercourse (likelihood of engaging in sex during secondary school)
- drug/alcohol use
The researchers used two conceptualizations of gratitude – ‘moral affect’ and ‘life-orientation’ - indicating that ‘moral affect gratitude’ refers to an emotional response to the benevolent behaviour whereas ‘life-orientation gratitude’ is defined more as a tendency of concentrating on and appreciating the positive facets of life, humans and the world. The life-orientation gratitude was discovered to reduce the risk factors and claimed to be a personality trait. ‘Moral affect gratitude’ is related to higher performance and satisfaction, from a psychological point of view more changeable and should therefore be enhanced.
When we look at the multiple positive outcomes, whether we take adults or adolescents, gratitude seems to be a key to happiness, in contrast to the putative strives for happiness by accumulation in our materialistic society. When children grow up and go to school, they are taught maths, languages, history, art and later on physics and chemistry, etc., which is essential for their futures. But, are future little “Einsteins” and “Nobel price candidates” protected from unhappiness and strong enough to deal with the dark sides of life? Definitely not! So why should not teachers cultivate gratitude? Of course some people were born happier than others or are more resilient than others by nature. So is it for gratitude but fortunately, we can learn to feel and be grateful for what we have.
Children will become lazy and stop dreaming – a myth
Somebody might contradict the benefits of gratitude and say: „It’s nice to have kids that are happy and grateful with what they have. But why should they strive for more then? Where will they get the motivation from to fulfil their dreams? Aren’t they going to be passive and lethargic in difficult situations?” Quite the contrary: the positive influence of gratitude on goal attainment has been scientifically proven (Emmons & Mishra, 2011). People recording what they are grateful for, exert more effort towards their goals, and feel more energetic and alert. Gratitude also motivates people to make life better for others or to give something back. Pro-social behaviours have also been more pronounced for grateful children when they were teenagers.
Thanksgiving more than once a year
Originally, Thanksgiving arose as a religious observance for the whole community to say “thank you” to God. Of course, a person can feel or be grateful towards a higher power, but gratitude isn’t limited to the religious context. Children should actually celebrate Thanksgiving every morning when they wake up and discover their environment. In this regard, I will never forget my grandfather telling me the story of the first pair of shoes he bought himself. After years of hell in concentration camps followed by sojourns in pulmonary sanatoriums, he was saving every cent to be able to buy a specific pair of shoes, which he had seen in a shop-window. Once he had enough money to get them, he bought them, put them next to his bed and woke up regularly to make sure they were still there. For me this act symbolises how much he was grateful for being alive, to the people that cared for him and helped him to start a “postwar” life and also for being able to afford something else than food. Today, as an 89 year-old man, he is probably the most grateful person I know. With this example, I wanted to illustrate that early gratitude may have a positive lifelong impact. My grandfather learned it unfortunately by enduring one of humanity’s most ordeals but the youth of today could be learning it in peace, at least in most parts of Western Europe. How about implementing 20 minutes gratitude per week in school? I.e. the main teacher could devise different gratitude exercises on set days. A “thank you letter” once in a while or keeping a gratitude journal could be positive for our youngsters’ development and their years to come. Feeling grateful will not only help them to live a fulfilled life but also to find satisfaction in their work and to become resilient grown-ups.
Last but not least, I thank you, dear reader.
Written by Larissa Kalisch
- Emmons, R. A., & Mishra, A. (2011). Why gratitude enhances well-being: What we know, what we need to know. Designing positive psychology: Taking stock and moving forward, 248-262.
- Emmons, R. A., & McCullough, M. E. (2003). Counting blessings versus burdens: An experimental investigation of gratitude and subjective well-being in daily life. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 84(2), 377–389. https://doi.org/10.1037/0022-35220.127.116.117
- Harvard Health Publishing. (2011, November). In Praise of Gratitude. Retrieved October 31, 2017, from https://www.health.harvard.edu/newsletter_article/in-praise-of-gratitude
- Ma, M., Kibler, J. L., & Sly, K. (2013). Gratitude is associated with greater levels of protective factors and lower levels of risks in African American adolescents. Journal of Adolescence, 36(5), 983–991. https://doi.org/10.1016/j.adolescence.2013.07.012
- PPP Editorial Team. (2017, February 28). What is Gratitude and What Is Its Role in Positive Psychology? Retrieved October 29, 2017, from https://positivepsychologyprogram.com/gratitude-appreciation/