When I was nine years old, I came down with a serious case of encephalitis. I spent a couple of weeks drifting in and out of sleep, hooked up to tubes and IVs, unable to talk—and then I slipped into a coma. A doctor warned my mom and dad that I might not come out “normal” or be able to walk again. When I came through a week later, I was happy to see my parents and my aunt standing in front of me, masks covering their mouths, their eyes open with relief and trembling with concern. I figured something was wrong, but didn’t understand what.
“I want pizza,” I uttered.
I had to wait a week before I could eat regular food. But my parents and relatives talked with me about the things I could do when I got out, which helped me to set my sights on getting better. And the many prayers from loved ones mattered; I believed them. When one nurse, named Flo, asked me about my hobbies and interests, it made me feel special and it focused me on things I wanted to do again. She was surprised to learn that I had never had a shake. As soon as I could eat regular food again, Flo showed up with a chocolate shake for me! I was filled with gratitude.
Knowing that people were there for me and believed in me guided my focus and gave me strength. It was the highlight of each day when my parents arrived with a treat or homemade food. I believed their encouragement that I was strong and would get out soon. I surprised the doctor with my recovery by the end of the week and, after leaving the hospital, with my progress through physical therapy.
My lifelong interest in the positive power of relationships started with this negative life event. Twenty-three years later, I began scientifically exploring gratitude in postdoctoral work with Michael McCullough at the University of Miami. Though I started out studying forgiveness, I was surprised to learn that there was virtually no research on the development of gratitude. I had found my niche!
As an immigrant who had always gravitated towards adults who personally cared about my development, gratitude seemed particularly valuable to me and to the topic of supporting youth achievement. In 2007, Michael Furlong at UC Santa Barbara invited me to write a chapter on the potential of gratitude in school. Research on gratitude in youth was just emerging, mainly being done by a psychologist at Hofstra University by the name of Jeffrey Froh. Jeff and I wrote two chapters about gratitude, and as we embarked on more research together, we sought a grant to support our work. In 2011, thanks to funding from the John Templeton Foundation, the Youth Gratitude Project (YGP) was born. We’re working with hundreds of students and educators to understand how to measure and cultivate gratitude in schools and at home.
Today, I’m often asked, “What’s the secret to instilling gratitude in kids?” This question is tough to answer in a few sentences because gratitude is a complex social behavior that we must personalize and work at regularly to grow (just like nutritional or exercise habits that last). It will emerge spontaneously, in situations like the one I faced. But can we cultivate gratitude and its benefits in our daily lives? The truth is that the science of gratitude is just starting out—and there’s a lot we still don’t know. Here’s an overview of what we’ve discovered about kids and thankfulness, and the questions we’re still trying to answer.
Figuring out what happens when kids say “thanks”
To start, we tried to figure out how to measure gratitude in children and teens. Research had yet to verify if existing measures of gratitude were suitable for assessing gratitude in 10-19 year olds. We examined this in a study six years ago, and our main findings were that the standard for measuring the grateful personality in adults, the GQ-6, did not perform well for 10-13 year olds but was sufficient for 14-19 year olds.
We recommended that better measures needed to be developed for children younger than 13. We are now examining if modified versions of the GQ-6 that use more age-appropriate wording or formatting perform with greater consistency and accuracy for 7-19 year olds. We also need a measure for preschoolers, and we’re currently conducting assessment studies with that group. Lack of such measures hinders basic and applied research on gratitude in youth.
The YGP also addressed the effects of gratitude on children and teens. An early study of 14-19 year olds linked gratitude to outcomes like better GPA, less envy and depression, and more life satisfaction and flow. We also found that materialism tended to negatively affect these outcomes.
We’re examining these and other relationships longitudinally—meaning that we’re following how they unfold over time—and findings so far show that gratitude is related to more prosocial behavior, satisfaction with life, hope, and search for purpose, and less antisocial behavior and depression over a period of four years. One study we just submitted for publication shows that gratitude and prosocial behavior reinforce each other—and that adolescents who show more gratitude are more likely to be skilled at identifying goals and strategizing ways to reach them, and they tend to be more empathic and trusting. These findings suggest that gratitude helps youth develop their competencies and become their own person by gradually improving themselves and how they interact with others.
Finally, another study of ours found that 8-11 year old students could be taught to think gratefully (i.e., be better at appraising gifts they receive from benefactors) in school and that doing so supports their emotional well-being over a period of five months. It also, unsurprisingly, leads them to express thanks more, compared to students who were not taught grateful thinking. We are also examining the effects of a gratitude and purpose curriculum on students in grades 4-12.
So far, so good. So, what’s next?
What good is gratitude to students?
However, a recent paper by Tyler Renshaw and Rachel Olinger at Louisiana State University casts all this work into doubt. Their study examined research on whether gratitude is beneficial for youth in schools by meta-analyzing studies from 2006 to 2014, including some of ours. They basically found that measures of gratitude in youth are not as accurate or consistent as they need to be for scientific purposes, that gratitude interventions with youth in school and in after-school programs were ineffective, and that enthusiasm for promoting gratitude in youth and in schools should be tempered with further research in this area.
According to Renshaw and Olinger, researchers like us are facing three main obstacles: the homogenous samples, the lack of uniformity in how gratitude should be practiced in school, and a narrow theoretical understanding of the causes and consequences of gratitude when practiced in school. For instance, the majority of studies they could include in their review focused on adolescents, and the intervention studies have all been done with ethnically homogenous populations. With the field so nascent, researchers have yet to settle on a common set of practices that should characterize gratitude interventions for youth.
Finally, little is known from the studies about how gratitude influences processes and outcomes that are important to schools (like students’ prosocial and academic behaviors and social-emotional skills or how these things lead to school-specific subjective well-being and quality of school climate).
This meta-analysis highlights how much more work we still have to do. Indeed, overcoming these three limitations are major goals of the Youth Gratitude Project. As part of this effort, the research is targeting a wide age range of students (ages 4-18) from multiple ethnic backgrounds and examining processes and outcomes relevant to schools, like achievement, grit, social conduct, relationships with peers and teachers, and school satisfaction.
Renshaw and Olinger also found that gratitude interventions have not proven effective. Here, however, their findings might be premature. The small number of interventions that have been done formally—and, specifically, the six that could be included in their review—has been limited by the types of gratitude induction activities (such as counting blessings or letter writing) and settings (during school and in after-school programs). In other words, researchers and educators are still trying to figure out what techniques and settings work best in fostering gratitude among kids—and we’re still a few years away from definitive conclusions.
It is, for example, worth considering variables that could moderate intervention effects before drawing conclusions about the effectiveness of gratitude interventions, such as how often students engage in gratitude practices—a major factor influencing the effects of any positive psychology technique. Other variables matter, too, such as students’ enjoyment of the lessons, and the effectiveness with which the lessons are delivered.
Unlike other intervention research, the YGP curriculum addresses these critical variables head-on. It’s including such variables to determine intervention effectiveness, and it’s including teacher training, so that lessons can be experienced as a natural part of the school day and be better personalized by students and educators. This will undoubtedly go a long way in helping to identify and craft more standard and effective techniques for interventions.
How gratitude is practiced matters
The main idea of the YGP curriculum is that varied gratitude practices, such as journaling, that genuinely build on students’ strengths and guide them to have more meaningful interactions and discussion with peers, teachers, and other adults more regularly should help students feel more socially competent and connected, be more satisfied with school, have better mental health and emotional well-being, and be more motivated about school and their future.
Preliminary evidence for the effects of our gratitude and purpose curriculum so far indicate that it is helping to decrease depression, anxiety, and antisocial behavior and increase hope, emotional regulation, and search for purpose. We will soon explore effects on other outcomes of interest to schools and move to fill many of the crucial gaps in this research area.
In short, research on what good gratitude is to youth development, students, and schools is trickling in and better tools for measuring gratitude in children will soon be available to help advance basic and applied research.
What practices should gratitude interventions include? They should start by identifying and engaging students’ character strengths and interests; and they should let students appreciate the different benefits and benefactors in their lives for themselves. Let’s go beyond lists and dry journals. As my story shows, when people “get” us and help us through tough times, gratitude grows. Bringing the full spectrum of human experience into grateful focus is key, and it seems to be a missing ingredient from youth intervention studies done so far too. My research so far suggests that this is the way to go.
In the meantime, schools participating in the YGP curriculum have shared anecdotes about students’ and parents’ enthusiasm for the gratitude lessons. Indeed, the character strength and gratitude exercises have not only been affirmational—strengthening pride in students’ achievements and building a sense of community—but they have also been hijacking much of the wall space at the Open Houses! In my opinion, this may be because the lessons are helping students to appreciate the value of altruistic choices in school and recognize the good intentions of others, which helps them feel supported in reaching for better. I imagine that’s good for teachers, staff, and neighborhoods, too.
It’s hard to say where gratitude research will lead us. But my childhood experiences tell me that it’s a project well worth pursuing.