It isn't until later in life that most people discover one of the keys to happiness: gratitude. The concept of thankfulness can be difficult for adults to embrace, and even harder for children and teens who believe the world revolves around them.
There are so many valuable qualities we want to instill in our children -- why should we focus on gratitude? Grateful teens are not only more pleasant to be around, but according to one study, they are also less likely to abuse drugs and alcohol, be depressed and have behavioral problems at school.
This isn't the first study to explore the science of gratitude. In a 2003 study from the University of California, Davis, grateful people reported higher levels of happiness and optimism, as well as lower levels of depression and stress. High school students who score high on gratitude have more friends and higher grades, while more materialistic students report more envy, lower grades and less life satisfaction, according to a study in the Journal of Happiness Studies.
While some people may be blessed with a natural inclination toward thankfulness, for most of us gratitude is learned. By learning gratitude, children become sensitive to the feelings of others, developing their innate capacities for empathy and altruism, whereas entitled kids end up feeling perpetually disappointed.
What Gratitude Is Not
Sometimes in our efforts to instill gratitude, we use approaches that look similar to gratitude but have unintended negative effects:
Threats. Lecturing your child about how spoiled they are or threatening to take away their toys because their room is too cluttered does not teach gratitude.
Comparisons. "Other children would give anything to have what you have" and other comments like these are really comparisons, not lessons in gratitude. This kind of "reverse envy" is more likely to inspire greed and guilt than gratitude.
Indebtedness. Feeling obligated to return a favor or do something nice to get out of another person's debt is not gratitude. The feeling behind indebtedness is negative and focused on a specific person, whereas gratitude is positive and can be directed toward anyone.
Flattery. Lavishing gifts or compliments on someone isn't necessarily an expression of gratitude. Thanking people in these ways produces resentment, guilt and a sense of obligation rather than appreciation.
Manipulation. Some people have questionable motives behind their expressions of gratitude. For example, kinds words may be used to manipulate someone into doing something, exert control or secure someone's loyalty or good favor.
The Recipe for Authentic Gratitude
Most parents want their children to be happy, yet we shower them with gifts, protect them from the natural consequences of their actions and do all kinds of things that actually make them less happy. If we really want our kids to be happy, we need to instill an attitude of gratitude. But how can we instill gratitude in children who are naturally self-centered and growing up in an entitlement-driven society?
Model Gratitude. Gratitude isn't just a lesson to be taught to children, but alsoan ongoing exercise in learning for parents. Instead of clamoring for the newest gadget, work on being grateful for what you have right now. When interacting with your kids, share frequently and generously and say please and thank you so that good manners are "what we do" not just what we say we do.
Share the Gift of Giving. Experienced parents have learned that the more kids get, the less they appreciate what they have. Receiving gifts can befun, but make sure your children also recognize the joy of giving. Around the holidays, focus on celebrating, making memories and visiting with friends and family rather than who gets the most presents.
Teach Family Values. Many children grow up believing that life is about acquiring money and material possessions. If your family values hard work, saving money and simple joys, make sure your principles are being communicated regularly.
Start a Family Tradition. Make gratitude a habit; for example, by going around the dinner table saying one thing you're grateful for or reflecting on the day at bedtime, noting the small things you enjoyed.
Assign Age-Appropriate Tasks. The more children contribute around the house, the more they realize how much effort it takes to keep a household running. Even if it takes twice as long or ends up creating another mess, give your child age-appropriate chores like setting the table or feeding a pet (or for teenagers, working a part-time job). Not only will they appreciate that these tasks require effort but they will feel the satisfaction of earning what they have and making a valuable contribution to the family.
Serve Others. Service can be part of a child's life from a young age. Get young kids involved in decorating thank-you notes, baking cookies for a friend or donating belongings to less fortunate children -- and point out how good it feels to make someone else's day brighter. With older kids, volunteer at an animal shelter, nursing home or soup kitchen, or figure out a type of charitable work they're passionate about and offer to help out.
Practice Mindfulness. Kids spend much of their day in front of television and computer screens, too often losing sight of the small but enduring pleasures found in nature and in their interactions with other people. Take time to appreciate the sights, smells and sounds around you, and you'll model mindfulness for your kids.
You've probably heard it said that "happiness is a choice." While it can be difficult to choose happiness in tough times, research suggests that happiness is, in fact, less the result of circumstance and more the product of our own thinking and habits. In other words, you don't have to wait until you have the perfect life to be happy -- you can choose it right now by focusing on what you're grateful for and encouraging your children to do the same.
David Sack, M.D., is board certified in psychiatry, addiction psychiatry and addiction medicine. He is CEO of Elements Behavioral Health, a network of mental health and addiction treatment programs that includes the Promises Malibu rehab centers, The Ranch, Right Step, and Spirit Lodge.