greater good science center
By Emily Campbell

As Thanksgiving approaches, kids may start hearing and thinking more about gratitude at school. Maybe they'll make handprint turkeys and write something they're thankful for on each feather, or do something similar. Sure, it's a nice exercise, but does being grateful really make a difference for kids?

Previous research clearly shows that it does. Practicing gratitude increases students' positive emotions and optimism, decreases their negative emotions and physical symptoms, and makes them feel more connected and satisfied with school and with life in general.

But most of these studies have been done with upper-middle-class students in middle or high school. The results raised the question: Would these findings hold true for other types of students, particularly younger kids or kids in high-risk situations?

Two new studies find that gratitude is associated with real positive effects in the lives of these kinds of kids -- enough to suggest that it should be a focus for students all-year round.

Making Young Kids More Grateful
Jeffrey Froh is a pioneering researcher of gratitude in youth. He and colleagues tested a new kind of gratitude curriculum for elementary school children (ages 8 to 11), the youngest studied thus far. First, children learned about the three types of appraisals that make us feel grateful:

  • That someone has intentionally done something to benefit us
  • That providing this benefit was costly to them
  • That the benefit is valuable to us

After one week of daily half-hour lessons, these students showed significant increases in grateful thinking and grateful mood -- meaning that the lessons worked. Also, when all the children were given the chance to write thank-you notes to the PTA after a presentation, the students wrote 80 percent more notes than kids who didn't receive the lessons, showing that their enhanced gratitude translated into more grateful behavior.

In the second part of the study, researchers delivered the curriculum over five weeks, with one lesson per week. The students' outcomes were tested right after the program ended and then several more times, up to five months later.

Compared to kids who didn't get the lessons in gratitude, these children showed steady increases in grateful thinking, gratitude, and positive emotions over time. In fact, the differences between the two groups were greatest five months after the program ended, indicating that the gratitude lessons had lasting effects.

Overall, this study suggests that even young students can learn to look at the world through more grateful eyes -- and that they may become not only more appreciative but also happier as a result.

Working with at-risk youth
In another recent study, Mindy Ma and colleagues looked at gratitude in a very different kind of population than those used in previous youth gratitude studies: African-American adolescents (ages 12 -14) in low-income, low-performing urban schools.

They wanted to know if, in this kind of high-risk environment, gratitude would help protect them from stresses they faced at home and school. The researchers surveyed almost 400 students from three different middle schools to see if they felt grateful emotion in response to things others do that benefit them (which researchers call "moral-affect" gratitude) or if they tended to focus on and appreciate the positives in our lives and the world (called "life-orientation" gratitude for short).

The researchers found that those who were more likely to feel grateful to others also scored higher on academic interest, grades, and extracurricular involvement; those who appreciated the positives in general scored lower on risky behaviors like drug use and sexual attitudes and activity. One factor, positive family relationships, was associated with both types of gratitude. In other words, at least for this group of students, moral-affect gratitude seemed to enhance the positive conditions of their lives, while life-orientation gratitude seemed to buffer against some common high-risk pitfalls.

Of course, this study couldn't determine whether gratitude actually caused the good outcomes (or vice versa). But it did provide promising evidence that gratitude can play a critical role in protecting at-risk adolescents' from the difficulties of their lives, possibly by broadening their mindsets and building their personal resources and coping skills.

Future studies should include experiments with programs -- such as Froh's new curriculum, perhaps -- to test the effects of teaching gratitude in at-risk populations as well. Which might give us all something more to celebrate on Thanksgiving!

This article originally appeared on Greater Good, published by the Greater Good Science Center at UC Berkeley. For more, please visit greatergood.berkeley.edu.

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  • Good For Teens' Mental Health

    <a href="http://www.huffingtonpost.com/2012/08/11/gratitude-teens-happier_n_1749118.html">Grateful teens are happier</a>, according to a study presented at the annual meeting of the American Psychological Association this year. Researchers also found that teens who are grateful -- in the study, defined as having a <a href="http://www.huffingtonpost.com/2012/08/11/gratitude-teens-happier_n_1749118.html">positive outlook on life</a> -- are more well-behaved at school and more hopeful than their less-grateful peers. "More gratitude may be precisely what our society needs to raise a generation that is ready to make a difference in the world," study researcher Giacomo Bono, Ph.D., a psychology professor at California State University, said in a statement.

  • Boosts Well-Being

    Being constantly mindful of all the things you have to be thankful for can boost your well-being, research suggests. In a series of experiments detailed in a 2003 study in <a href="http://greatergood.berkeley.edu/pdfs/GratitudePDFs/6Emmons-BlessingsBurdens.pdf">the <em>Journal of Personality and Social Psychology</em></a>, daily exercise practices and listing off all the things you are thankful for are linked with a brighter outlook on life and a greater sense of positivity. "There do appear to exist benefits to regularly <a href="http://greatergood.berkeley.edu/pdfs/GratitudePDFs/6Emmons-BlessingsBurdens.pdf">focusing on one's blessings</a>," the researchers wrote in the study. "The advantages are most pronounced when compared with a focus on hassles or complaints, yet are still apparent in comparison with simply reflecting the major events in one’s life, on ways in which one believes one is better off than comparison with others, or with a control group."

  • Linked With Better Grades

    Grateful high-schoolers have <a href="http://people.hofstra.edu/jeffrey_j_froh/spring%202010%20web/10.1007_s10902-010-9195-9[1].pdf">higher GPAs</a> -- as well as better social integration and satisfaction with life -- than their not-grateful counterparts, according to a 2010 study in the <em>Journal of Happiness Studies</em>. Researchers also found that grateful teens were less depressed or envious. "When combined with previous research, a clearer picture is beginning to emerge about the <a href="http://people.hofstra.edu/jeffrey_j_froh/spring%202010%20web/10.1007_s10902-010-9195-9[1].pdf">benefits of gratitude</a> in adolescents, and thus an important gap in the literature on gratitude and well-being is beginning to be filled," researchers wrote.

  • Makes You A Better Friend To Others

    According to a 2003 study in the <a href="http://greatergood.berkeley.edu/pdfs/GratitudePDFs/6Emmons-BlessingsBurdens.pdf">the <em>Journal of Personality and Social Psychology</em></a>, gratitude could also boost pro-social behaviors, such as helping other people who have problems or lending emotional support to another person.

  • Helps You Sleep Better

    Writing down what you're thankful for as you drift off to sleep can help you get better ZZs, according to a study in the <a href="http://onlinelibrary.wiley.com/doi/10.1111/j.1758-0854.2011.01049.x/abstract">journal <em>Applied Psychology: Health and Well-Being</em></a>. Specifically, researchers found that when people spent 15 minutes jotting down what they're grateful for in a journal before bedtime, they <a href="http://www.psychologytoday.com/blog/minding-the-body/201111/how-gratitude-helps-you-sleep-night">fell asleep faster</a> and stayed asleep longer, <em>Psychology Today</em> reported.

  • Strengthens Your Relationship

    Being thankful for the little things your partner does could make your relationship stronger, according to a study in the journal <em>Personal Relationships</em>. <em>The Telegraph</em> reported on the study, which showed that journaling about the <a href="http://www.telegraph.co.uk/women/sex/7756775/Gratitude-for-little-things-is-key-to-relationships.html">thoughtful things your partner did</a> was linked with a beneficial outcome on the relationship.

  • Benefits The Heart

    A 1995 study in the <em>American Journal of Cardiology</em> showed that <a href="http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/7484873">appreciation and positive emotions</a> are linked with changes in heart rate variability. <blockquote>[This] may be beneficial in the treatment of hypertension and in reducing the likelihood of sudden death in patients with congestive heart failure and coronary artery disease.</blockquote>

  • Is Good For Team Morale

    Athletes are <a href="http://www.eric.ed.gov/ERICWebPortal/search/detailmini.jsp?_nfpb=true&_&ERICExtSearch_SearchValue_0=EJ811262&ERICExtSearch_SearchType_0=no&accno=EJ811262">less likely to burn out</a> and more likely to experience high life satisfaction and team satisfaction when they are grateful, according to a 2008 study in the journal <em>Social Indicators Research</em> of high-schoolers.

  • Linked WIth Better Immune Health

    Gratefulness is linked with optimism, which in turn is linked with <a href="http://women.webmd.com/features/gratitute-health-boost">better immune health</a>, WebMD reported. For example, a University of Utah study showed that stressed-out law students who were optimistic had more immune-boosting blood cells than people who were pessimistic, according to WebMD.

  • Protects You From Negative Emotions That Come With Extreme Loss

    WebMD reported that negative events can boost gratitude, and that gratitude can help to <a href="http://women.webmd.com/features/gratitute-health-boost">boost feelings of belonging</a> and decrease feelings of stress. For example, a survey showed that feelings of gratitude were at high levels after 9/11, according to WebMD.