Cultivating Gratitude

“Kids, what do you say?”

It’s the most frequently asked question of all parents (maybe second only to, “Exactly what were you thinking?”) And the answer is inevitably the forgotten words, “Thank you.” It’s simply too easy to forget, to slip through life without making room for a gratitude pause. To take the ice cream cone and have a lick, to pick up the fork and dive right in, to rip through the wrapping paper of the 6th Christmas present before the dust settles around the first one.

And our children aren’t alone in forgetting to say “Thank you.” It’s easy for all of us to take what we have each day for granted. We have food in our cupboards, we have shelter each night, we wake up to Southern California weather, yet still, our minds often focus on what isn’t going well or the transient complaints that inevitably arise each day.

One of the most important gifts you can give your children is to cultivate your own gratitude practice, as children are more likely to do what they see us doing than what they hear us tell them to do. If they are hearing you complain about the traffic, or the long lines in the stores, or the neighbors barking dog, they will follow suit. However, if you are constantly noticing the moments of beauty in your life, in a sunrise or a sunset, in the taste of a warm chocolate chip cookie, in the delight you experience when they get their homework done without being prompted, you are laying a foundation of appreciation for the everyday things that often get overlooked.

Research shows that besides just creating a more pleasant home environment, gratitude practices have important health benefits. Robert Emmons, a leading researcher on the effects of gratitude on our physical, emotional and social health asked people ages 8-80 to keep either a gratitude journal (writing down 5 things each day that they were grateful for) or a complaint journal (writing down the simple or severe frustrations that were encountered on a daily basis.) Here’s some of what he has discovered from this simple study:

  • Those who kept gratitude journals on a weekly basis exercised more regularly, reported fewer physical symptoms, felt better about their lives as a whole, and were more optimistic about the upcoming week compared to those who recorded hassles or neutral life events (Emmons & McCullough, 2003). (BTW: they also got about 10% more sleep.)
  • Participants who kept gratitude lists were more likely to have made progress toward important personal goals (academic, interpersonal and health-based) over a two-month period compared to subjects in the other experimental conditions.
  • Participants in the daily gratitude condition were more likely to report having helped someone with a personal problem or having offered emotional support to another, relative to the participants recording their hassles or social comparisons.
  • He also found that when 6th and 7th graders were asked to keep gratitude journals for the space of a few weeks, their GPAs went up!

Keeping one of Emmon’s gratitude journals is probably the best step toward cultivating a habit of gratitude. These journals can be individually purchased for each family member (and decorated with fun stickers!) or you can create a family gratitude journal that you all write in on a daily basis, maybe at meal time.

If you feel you don’t have time to stop to write something down, decide on an event that you do multiple times each day (such as shutting the car door or opening the refrigerator) and make that a time in which everyone takes a moment to share something out loud that they are grateful for. For example, you can share when you leave the house in the morning, whenever you are waiting at a red light, or when you are tucking the kids in bed. The more time you spend thinking of the beautiful things in your day, the more you are directing your attention to the things that bring you life and joy, and the healthier you will be.

Of course, the difficult things in life will still be there, and will still need time to be heard. Children will always be grateful for your sense of empathy and understanding for the hard things they face. We don’t ever want gratitude to become empty platitudes that try to whitewash over the bad times. Challenging experiences should be respected and given gentle attention.

However, difficult things tend to be time and space hogs. Our brains are naturally wired to focus on the problems, and it takes an intentional practice to move us from dwelling on the negative and instead choose to balance our focus with other, more positive truths. For example, even when everything else is going wrong, it’s quite remarkable that we have drinkable water that simply flows out from the turn of a tap. And I’m always grateful that the sun will rise anew each morning.

If you want more ideas on cultivating gratitude, check out Unstuck and the 9 ways that they suggest to cultivate gratitude at http://www.unstuck.com/gratitude.html.

Or, something beautiful to watch with your children is a TED talk by Louis Schwartzberg on Gratitude. His passion is time lapse photography, and there’s no way to watch these images without being full of gratitude for the beauty that exists in this world. http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=gXDMoiEkyuQ

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