More than Good Manners

The Very Real Health & Happiness Benefits of Gratitude

Over the past twenty years, psychology has moved beyond a science that primarily focuses on achieving basic functioning to one seeking to promote flourishing. And one attribute in particular has been increasingly recognized for its connection to well-being across the lifespan: gratitude. 

Gratitude can be aimed inward or outward. We can be generally appreciative of the positive aspects of our own lives, but we can also direct our thanks toward others for their help and support. And although there are different ways to experience gratitude, it is consistently linked to higher levels of well-being, life satisfaction, prosocial behavior, and positive relationships; as well as to lower levels of depression and stress. Gratitude can impact your life directly, such as through positive emotions, or indirectly, by facilitating healthy relationships and community involvement, or mitigating risk factors like loneliness and rumination. 

In one study among adolescents, gratitude was found to be more strongly correlated with life satisfaction than peer or parental relations, academic achievement, or even social acceptance, leading researchers to suggest gratitude interventions for unhappy teenagers. 

In kids as young as five, research has found positive correlations between happiness and domain-specific gratitude for things like activities, people, objects, basic needs, and nature (with gratitude for other people especially predictive of children’s happiness). As kids age, they move from these types of “concrete” expressions of gratitude, to more “connective” ones, recognizing the meaningful things they might do for others.

Early childhood is a prime opportunity to develop emotional awareness and perspective-taking—some of the building blocks of gratitude. By age seven or eight, direct interventions to teach advanced aspects of gratitude have been successful as kids are increasingly able to feel, express, and internalize heartfelt gratitude (and its benefits). And because gratitude is connected to well-being and high-quality relationships, teaching gratitude can help children thrive in many aspects of their lives. 

For parents looking to teach gratitude to their children, modeling (as usual) is a powerful tool that both shows kids the value of gratitude and provides meaningful examples of how to be thankful. Beyond modeling, another reason to walk the walk of gratitude is that more thankful parents are likely to set goals to build gratitude in their kids. A parenting approach that is nurturing and respects a child’s autonomy is also linked to higher levels of gratitude among kids.

Research among parents has also highlighted common obstacles to fostering gratitude in children, including assumptions of basic needs being met, a sense of entitlement, material desires, and conflicting emotions like guilt or anxiety. Indeed, 81% of parents with young children do not believe they are grateful for what they have. Acknowledging and addressing these barriers can pave the way for more effective gratitude cultivation in children, enriching their lives and relationships.

Gratitude isn’t just good manners, it’s a research-backed pathway to increasing our kids’ happiness that supports positive growth in many important facets of their development. As adults, it’s crucial that we lead by example in modeling gratitude, and actively help the kids in our lives to hone this life-enhancing skill. 

Davis, D. E., Choe, E., Meyers, J., Wade, N., Varjas, K., Gifford, A., Quinn, A., Hook, J. N., Van Tongeren, D. R., Griffin, B. J., & Worthington, E. L. (2016). Thankful for the little things: A meta-analysis of gratitude interventions. Journal of Counseling Psychology, 63(1), 20–31.

Halberstadt, A. G., Langley, H. A., Hussong, A. M., Rothenberg, W. A., Coffman, J. L., Mokrova, I., & Costanzo, P. R. (2016). Parents’ understanding of gratitude in children: A thematic analysis. Early Childhood Research Quarterly, 36, 439–451.

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Obeldobel, C. A., & Kerns, K. A. (2021). A literature review of gratitude, parent–child relationships, and well-being in children. Developmental Review, 61, 100948.

Portocarrero, F. F., Gonzalez, K., & Ekema-Agbaw, M. (2020). A meta-analytic review of the relationship between dispositional gratitude and well-being. Personality and Individual Differences, 164, 110101.

Proctor, C., Linley, P. A., & Maltby, J. (2010). Very Happy Youths: Benefits of Very High Life Satisfaction Among Adolescents. Social Indicators Research, 98(3), 519–532.

Wang, D., Wang, Y. C., & Tudge, J. R. H. (2015). Expressions of Gratitude in Children and Adolescents: Insights From China and the United States. Journal of Cross-Cultural Psychology, 46(8), 1039–1058.

Wood, A. M., Froh, J. J., & Geraghty, A. W. A. (2010). Gratitude and well-being: A review and theoretical integration. Clinical Psychology Review, 30(7), 890–905.

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