Every Thanksgiving, before my family gorges on turkey with gravy and marshmallow-topped sweet potatoes, we go around the table and share something we’re thankful for. I would bet you have a similar family tradition. But are your responses as broad and generic as ours? Most of us say that we’re grateful for our health or the opportunity to celebrate the holiday together. It’s like we don’t know how to answer such a big question — “What are you grateful for?” — when it’s asked just once a year.
So why do we only count our blessings at the dinner table on the fourth Thursday of every November? After all, positive things happen to each of us every day. They might not be as monumental as receiving a clean bill of health or a long-awaited promotion, but they’re worthwhile nonetheless: a stranger letting you cut ahead in line when you’re obviously in a rush; helpful advice from a friend; a compliment from a teacher or boss. What would happen if people started practicing gratitude on a daily basis rather than just on Thanksgiving? Some local experts shared their thoughts.
The Benefits of Gratitude
In a nutshell, cultivating an attitude of gratitude might make families happier, healthier and more engaged with one another. “There is a growing body of gratitude research that suggests people who engage in gratitude practices experience psychological, physical, and social benefits,” says Joy Kolb, a licensed psychologist and licensed behavior analyst at Alliance Pediatrics in Gaithersburg. Experiencing gratitude, she explains, helps young children have a better understanding of emotions, teens feel less envious and less depressed, and adolescents report more self-discipline.
However, the study of gratitude is relatively new — only about 20 years, according to Anthony Ahrens, a professor of psychology at American University who focuses on gratitude, mindfulness and fear of emotion. Psychologists are “still early in trying to understand it,” he says, but one benefit may be that gratitude can help us figure out who we can really trust. “It’s hard to go through life on our own. We need to know which people we can trust, and experiencing and expressing gratitude can help us to realize the people who we can really count on — and also start to bind us more closely to them,” Ahrens says, referring to a theory of gratitude called “find, bind, remind.”
Then there’s the idea that gratitude “can help us to understand that our lives are abundant rather than deprived,” he adds. It’s easy to focus on the things we lack, and sometimes that’s important, he says, if it motivates us to go out and get them. But focusing on what we have creates a sense of abundance, and research even suggests that feeling grateful makes us more likely to be generous, explains Adam Grant, a Wharton professor and New York Times bestselling author. “It leads us to think a little about what we have to offer and how we can contribute something that other people might appreciate,” he says.
If families are interested in starting a gratitude practice, Kolb recommends easing into it. “Some families start by taking turns around the dinner table stating a ‘win’ or ‘peak’ in their day, eventually shaping this exercise into daily gratitude statements,” she says. If children seem hesitant at first, parents can tailor the exercise around their interests and strengths. Artistic kids may prefer drawing a picture of their daily win, and writers can record a positive experience in a journal as part of their bedtime routine.
Talking or thinking about a person to whom you’re grateful is one thing, but expressing gratitude to that person directly is another. Some studies even suggest that outward expressions of gratefulness may be more beneficial to our well-being than simply thinking about gratitude. “Children can be taught to express their gratitude to others by sending thank-you notes or initiating a brief thank-you phone call,” Kolb says.
Another way to practice gratitude is to connect it with generosity. During family gratitude conversations at their dinner table, Adam Grant and Allison Sweet Grant, co-authors of a new children’s book on generosity, “The Gift Inside the Box,” ask their kids about who they helped and who helped them at school. “At first, we started getting sort of your standard ‘I forgot’ responses from the kids. But after a while, they really became thoughtful about it and would answer with things like, ‘Oh, I helped somebody study for a quiz’ or ‘I shared my snack,’” says Sweet Grant. Asking their kids about receiving help from others reminds them to be grateful for the people who are supportive of them.
Similarly, “family volunteering and social service opportunities allow parents to point out how their children’s actions can fulfill others and how others express their gratitude,” Kolb says. But being helpful can also start at home with kids taking on household chores that are appropriate for their age and developmental level. “By engaging in activities that promote a sense of community, belongingness and autonomy, children cultivate gratitude within themselves and others,” she says.
Mastering the practice of gratitude takes time and effort, but by incorporating more opportunities to feel grateful every day, children may have an easier time answering the question “What are you grateful for?” at next year’s Thanksgiving dinner.
PJ Feinstein, the mother of two young boys, is a writer and editor in Potomac. She’s grateful for the opportunity to contribute to Washington Family.