One of the first things young children are taught to say is “thank you” when someone does something nice for them or gives them a gift. In this holiday time of gift-giving, it is worth noting the importance, origins and function of gratitude, its effects on child development, and how to promote it in children.
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Gratitude has long been noted as a cornerstone virtue of society. Over 2,000 years ago, Cicero said that “gratitude is not only the greatest of virtues, but the parent of all the others.” Gratitude is defined as the quality of being thankful, and is an affirmation of goodness in the world. It can be seen as a virtue or as an emotional state.
As a virtue, gratitude functions to promote benevolence and social stability; it has been referred to as the “moral memory of mankind” because it is a moral feeling that binds individuals to society by fostering reciprocity and cooperation. Gratitude helps individuals to appreciate the good deeds others do, motivates them to reciprocate, and reinforces this process. As an emotional state, gratitude depends upon the beneficiary recognizing that the benefactor acted intentionally, that the benefactor had some cost in providing the benefit, and that the beneficiary values that benefit.
Research with adults has shown that those who express and experience more gratitude have greater well-being: they are happier, more optimistic, like their work more, are more likely to help others, are more resilient, and are less likely to experience anxiety, depression, and stress. Although there is less research addressing gratitude in children, findings indicate that children, beyond saying “thank you,” may begin to experience emotional gratitude around 7 years of age, and develop a more complex understanding of gratitude over the course of later childhood and adolescence. Studies have shown that gratitude is associated with well-being in adolescents, and that well-being as related to less depression, drug use, and behavioral problems. Furthermore, expressing gratitude has been associated with more school-related success and satisfaction, and may help promote positive peer relationships.
Studies also show that in order for children to experience gratitude, they must have sufficient cognitive maturity to understand more complex emotions and be able to reflect on the state of mind of their benefactors, indicating their capacity for perspective-taking and empathy. Perspective-taking seems to be a pre-requisite for children to show the relationship between gratitude and well-being: in one study, children high in perspective-taking benefited the most in terms of well-being from a gratitude-promoting intervention. Besides lack of cognitive development and a broader world view, factors that may impede the experience and expression of gratitude include a lack of self-reflection, a sense of entitlement, and a materialistic orientation.
If gratitude is such a positive emotion for child development and virtue for societal integration, how can we promote it? First, it is important to note that the expression and experience of gratitude is a learned social process. Parents and teachers play a significant role in its development in children. Gratitude is like a skill to practice and cultivate in order to reap its benefits. It also requires effort and some degree of introspection.
Several approaches have been taken to promote gratitude. One is to monitor and record events for which one is grateful. Several randomized studies with college students showed that keeping a daily or weekly gratitude journal promoted greater well-being and pro-social behavior. A controlled study with middle school students examined the effects of counting blessings on a daily basis: Those in the gratitude condition showed greater gratitude, optimism, life and school satisfaction, and less negative affect. These findings suggest that having young adolescents count their blessings can enhance their well-being.
A recent controlled study evaluated the effects of a benefit-appraisal intervention to promote gratitude in 8- to 11-year-old children. The school-based gratitude curriculum focused on helping children to understand the experience of gratitude, including the intentions of benefactors, their costs in helping, and the benefits received. In other words, this program taught children about how gratitude works in order to promote more grateful thinking. Results showed that students receiving the intervention showed more grateful thinking and felt gratitude, behavioral expressions of gratitude, and positive affect than children in the control condition.
Based on recent research findings, we can conclude that the felt experience and expression of gratitude is associated with increased well-being in youth. Teaching children the habit of gratitude would appear to be good for their long-term mental health, as well as increasing pro-social behaviors that benefit the community and society as a whole. Teaching children how gratitude works seems to help them internalize gratitude as a valued habit and attitude that may sustain over time. If gratitude is the parent of all other virtues, as Cicero said, then we may also expect gracious children to exhibit kindness, love, and compassion toward others.
There is much to be thankful for, so let us be good models for our children and teach them to understand the meaning of gratitude and help them to practice grateful thinking. The Greek philosopher Epictetus said it best in the first century A.D.: “He is a wise man who does not grieve for the things which he has not, but rejoices for those which he has.”
Alan Delamater, PhD, is professor of pediatrics and psychology and director of clinical psychology at the Mailman Center for Child Development, University of Miami Miller School of Medicine.