Giving Thanks: How Gratitude Makes Us Happier

Thanksgiving, it turns out, is good for your health. I’m not talking about that second helping of pumpkin pie. Rather, compelling research shows that giving thanks provides a boost to our health and happiness.

According to the Harvard Healthbeat, “Gratitude is strongly and consistently associated with greater happiness. Gratitude helps people feel more positive emotions, relish good experiences, improve their health, deal with adversity, and build strong relationships.”

Here’s what I like about research on gratitude (and there’s a lot of it): it offers us small and simple activities that can make a profound difference to our well-being.

Here are three ways we can help our kids nurture an “attitude of gratitude.”

1. Write Thank You Notes

In his book Flourish: A Visionary New Understanding of Happiness and Well-being, psychologist Dr. Martin Seligman notes that writing a thank you letter – and delivering it – results in an immediate and significant boost in “happiness scores.” And in studies, the positive boost lasts more than a month.

He writes:

“When we feel gratitude, we benefit from the pleasant memory of a positive event in our life. Also, when we express our gratitude to others, we strengthen our relationship with them. But sometimes our ‘thank you’ is said so casually or quickly that it is nearly meaningless. In this [letter-writing] exercise, [you have] the opportunity to experience what it is like to express your gratitude in a thoughtful, purposeful manner.”

2. Record “What Went Well”

Seligman also recommends an exercise called “What Went Well” or, alternately, “Three Blessings.”

He writes:

“Every night for the next week, set aside 10 minutes before you go to sleep. Write down three things that went well today and why they went well. You may use a journal or your computer to write about the events, but it is important that you have a physical record of what you wrote. The three things need not be earthshaking in importance (“My husband picked up my favorite ice cream for dessert on the way home from work today”), but they can be important (“My sister just gave birth to a healthy baby boy”). Next to each positive event, answer the question, “Why did this happen?”

Why does this boost happiness?  Seligman explains that most people are much better at dwelling on the bad than they are reflecting on the good. He writes, “Of course, sometimes it makes sense to analyze bad events so that we can learn from them and avoid them in the future. However, people tend to spend more time thinking about what is bad in life than is helpful. Worse, this focus on negative events sets us up for anxiety and depression. One way to keep this from happening is to get better at thinking about and savoring what went well.”

3. Make Gratitude a Family Affair

Children watch our behavior. As a family, do we make it a habit to say thank you to each other? Do they hear us thanking the people who help us at a store? Do we encourage them to write thank you cards – and do they see us doing the same? Do they hear us expressing awe and gratitude for the world around us?

If you are looking for a fun way to get the conversation started with kids, a recent PBS Parents article suggests making a gratitude jar: “You need a large clear jar, a stack of sticky notes and a pen. Have each family member write (or draw) something that they are grateful for a few times a week. It can be small things, like a shiny red apple, or big things, like time spent with a grandparent. At the end of the week, read the gratitude slips together as a family and soak up the positive emotions.”

This week, I saw the power of gratitude first-hand.  My four-year-old was invited to a friend’s Halloween Party. A few days later, she asked if she could write a thank you card for her friend.  She spent a great deal of time drawing a picture and dictating words for me to write.  The next morning, she was bursting with excitement to hand-deliver the card at school.  That night, when I came home from work, the first thing she said to me, “Daddy! I gave him the thank you card and it made him soooooo happy!” I’m sure it did, but her smile told me that this small gesture also made her very happy.  And that’s the brilliance of gratitude – it benefits everyone. And that, of course, is one more thing to be grateful for.

photo credit: red star leaves via photopin (license)

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