THE BLOG
04/21/2014 11:41 am ET Updated Jun 21, 2014

In Pursuit of Happiness? Be Grateful

Rob Lewine via Getty Images

In the field of positive psychology, gratitude is strongly associated with greater, overall happiness. Gratitude boasts many benefits -- including better relationships, better physical health, increased happiness and better coping skills. People who experience gratitude, it seems, experience more positive emotion and are better equipped to deal with negative situations.

Gratitude comes in many forms. As parents, we tend to get stuck in a loop of wanting our kids to be grateful for every little thing that they have. We focus on the stuff, but gratitude isn't about stuff. Gratitude is an emotional experience. Gratitude can include thinking about happy memories, appreciating the present and even having optimistic thoughts about the future. Gratitude is about relationships, experiences and moments. Stuff is just stuff.

In one study, University of Pennsylvania psychologist and author Martin E.P. Seligman, Ph.D. studied the impact of positive psychology interventions. One of the tasks included writing and delivering a letter of gratitude to someone who had never been properly thanked for his or her kindness. Upon completing this task, participants of the study exhibited a significant increase in happiness scores. I can understand that. I recently reached out to a college professor to thank him for his role in inspiring me to follow my passion. I was walking on air for a week after the email exchange.

Research plays an important role in helping us understand what makes us tick, but nothing beats seeing gratitude in action.

Josh Coyne, a student in the Carroll School of Management at Boston College, recently created his own project on the link between gratitude and happiness for his senior thesis. Coyne asked 30 fellow college students to complete a happiness survey. Upon completion of the survey, participants were asked to write a letter of gratitude to someone important to them, read the letter to that person and complete the happiness survey for a second time. The results are eye opening, and Coyne recorded the entire process and complied it into this inspiring video (warning: Grab tissues).

How does a young man on his way to a career in finance and technology have such a strong sense of gratitude? Coyne moved around a lot as a kid (he attended 11 different schools), but his parents always made sure to remind him how beautiful life is, despite the ups and downs.

When I asked Coyne what inspires him to live a life grounded in gratitude when, let's face it, he's at an age where he could easily become wrapped up in his own immediate thoughts and needs, his response was spot-on: "I tend to look at gratitude like the action of looking up at the clouds." He also said, "At a young age, the sky becomes a drawing board as we count the clouds and imagine what shapes they are taking. However, as we mature, we begin to see clouds as gloomy and dull things that get in the way of the sun. It's the same with gratitude. We stop seeing the grandeur of life as we initially viewed it." Coyne says that he constantly reminds himself to embrace gratitude, to look up, because, "Living with my head in the clouds really helps me keep my feet on the ground."

So, how can we take this information and apply it to parenting? It makes good sense to instill a sense of gratitude in our children, but that won't come from impatient reminders to be more grateful. To help our children understand and internalize a sense of gratitude, we have to start by expressing our own gratitude.

Four ways to teach gratitude:

1. Take gratitude breaks.
A daily, family gratitude break is a great way to make time for the act of looking up to the sky and thinking about people and experiences that trigger feelings of gratitude in us. Take ten minutes each evening to stop what you're doing, find a relaxing place and reflect upon past and present experiences (that evoke positive emotion) and the people in your life who you just can't live without. Share your thoughts with your children.

2. Be present.
We can justify all of the super important emails that require an immediate return and text messages that can't possibly go unanswered all we want, but the truth is, we live in a distracted world -- distracted driving, distracted parenting, distracted conversations.

It's time to return to the present tense and be in the moment. Sure, there are times when you have a large to-do list to conquer and bills to pay, but this world of self-importance in which we currently live in is little more than an excuse to indulge in instant gratification. We can't teach our children to live a life of gratitude if we don't have five minutes to stop and smell the roses or, more importantly, watch our children conquer those monkey bars. Be present.

3. Scale back.
We hear a lot about overscheduled kids but not as much about overscheduled parents. If your kids are overscheduled, you are probably overscheduled, too. Overscheduling leads to impatience, exhaustion and, you guessed it, distraction.

Scale back. Make a pact to live a life that isn't busy and stick to it. Not to worry, your kids will survive if they only have one after-school activity. In fact, they will probably thrive.

4. Write it out.
It's one thing to reflect upon gratitude but, as we saw in that video, writing it down and sharing it with another is a very moving experience. Try a family gratitude box. Have your kids decorate a shoebox with words and pictures representing gratitude and keep it in the kitchen. Encourage your family members to write out thoughts of gratitude and slip them in the box throughout the week. Read them out loud during a family meal. Chances are, positive emotions will emerge.

What are you waiting for? Shut down that laptop and call a gratitude break. You'll be better for it, that much I can promise.