Growing up grateful gives teenagers multiple mental health benefits, new research shows.
Grateful teens are more likely to be happy, less likely to abuse drugs and alcohol and less likely to have behavior problems at school.
“Gratitude played an important role in many areas of positive mental health of the teens in our study,” said lead author Giacomo Bono, PhD, psychology professor at California State University. “Increases in gratitude over a four-year period were significantly related to improvements in life satisfaction, happiness, positive attitudes and hope.”
Benefits of gratitude
To measure the development of gratitude, researchers surveyed 700 students aged 10 to 14 at the beginning of the study and again four years later. They found that teens with the most gratitude by the end of the four-year period had:
- gained 15% more of a sense of meaning in their life
- become 15% more satisfied with their life overall (at home, at school, with their neighborhood, with their friends and with themselves)
- become 17% more happy and more hopeful about their lives
- experienced a 13% drop in negative emotions and a 15% drop in depressive symptoms.
Even if teens didn’t start off with lots of gratitude, those that developed more gratitude over the four-year period experienced many of the same improvements in wellbeing and showed slight reductions overall in delinquency, such as alcohol and drug use, cheating on exams, skipping school, detention and administrative discipline.
“More gratitude may be precisely what our society needs to raise a generation that is ready to make a difference in the world”
Professor Bono believes his research shows that gratitude is strongly linked with life skills such as cooperation, purpose, creativity and persistence, and that parents, teachers and others who work with young people should be helping young people build gratitude as they grow up.
“More gratitude may be precisely what our society needs to raise a generation that is ready to make a difference in the world,” he said.
Definition of grateful
For the purposes of the study, the authors defined grateful teens as having a disposition and moods that enabled them to respond positively to the good people and things in their lives.
Are all teenagers ungrateful?
As 17-year-old Rayana Godfrey writes in her article for Huffington Post, the only people who score lower than teenagers in gratitude surveys are people with post-traumatic stress disorder. Professor Bono told Rayana that this is more due to environmental factors rather than teenagers being inherently ungrateful.
“One of the reasons would be the commercial culture that young people are finding themselves in,” he said. “Having to be a consumer is something that young people are starting to do without even understanding it all.”
Professor Bono has also found that many young people are less grateful because they don’t yet know what their purpose is.
“The only people who score lower than teenagers in gratitude surveys are people with post-traumatic stress disorder”
Rayana asked a number of her teenage friends to take the standard gratitude survey, and they all returned high results. She asked Professor Bono why this might be, when teenagers traditionally score lower. He said it was probably because all the teens interviewed were part of communities: some were involved with church, others with Youth Radio.
“Where there’s a strong sense of community, where young people feel at home, that tends to produce gratitude too,” he said. “When you find something you love, that’s a good achievement in life.”
How to be grateful
How can parents encourage an attitude of gratitude in their teenagers?
- Set the example – find things in your own life to be thankful for, and be vocal about it.
- When your teenager is feeling negative about aspects of their life, allow them to express those feelings, but also help them to identify what is good about themselves or their lives.
- At the dinner table at the end of the day, ask your children what good thing happened that day.
- Encourage your teenager to become involved in community or extra-curricular groups (see above section: ‘Are all teenagers ungrateful?’)
- Help your teenager become involved in helping others less fortunate, such as through charity work, sponsoring a disadvantaged Australian student through the Smith Family, or sponsoring a child in a developing country through an organisation like World Vision Australia.
- Religious traditions such as pre-dinner ‘grace’ and Lent at Easter encourage gratitude. Even if your family is not religious, you can still introduce similar traditions of being thankful for your meals or setting a family challenge to go without something for a period of time to appreciate its presence in your lives.
- Say thank you, and often, and encourage the same in your children.