Every person is unique; some people seem to be more naturally optimistic and upbeat while others, like Eeyore from the Winnie the Pooh books, are more inclined to see potential pitfalls and expect (or at least worry about) worst-case-scenarios. Those in the latter category, or those who consider themselves “realists,” will quickly point out that approaching life with too many high hopes and lofty expectations only sets the stage for disappointment. While research suggests that this is a reasonable concern, there are clear and profound benefits for families that maintain an attitude of gratitude.
Individuals who approach life with gratitude celebrate the positives and the good in others even when presented with a challenging situation. Gratitude inclines a person to concentrate on those things that are uplifting above those things that might cause sadness or negativity. Those who are grateful focus on what is meaningful and affirming for them.
The benefits of gratitude are well-documented, but how do the positive effects of gratitude impact families specifically? These are some of the ways:
- Gratitude makes people—and families– happier. Research suggests that gratitude is positively correlated with happiness. In other words, grateful people are happier people. When parents approach life with gratitude, the entire family dynamic is positively impacted. Difficult experiences and stresses are inevitable, but grateful people tend to see the “big picture.” Challenges- or those things that go wrong- are perceived within the larger context of all that is perceived as right and good in their lives. Even when disappointing things happen, grateful parents pause to mentally remind themselves of all the things for which they are thankful.
- Gratitude makes people less self-centered and more giving. Children are, by nature, self-centered. As children develop, they ideally become less self-centric as they come to understand that every person has a unique perspective (called “theory of mind”) and become increasingly capable of empathy. Some people approach life with the desire but not the lived experience of being grateful; they believe they would likely be more grateful if they only had more, if life weren’t so hard, if only this or that challenge were not in their lives. The reality is that people can choose gratitude regardless of their life circumstances. In fact, study after study has demonstrated that those people who have LESS tend to give MORE and demonstrate higher levels of gratitude than those who have comparably more, materially or otherwise.
- A grateful heart precedes a non-materialistic approach to life. It’s not uncommon for parents to feel overwhelmed while trying to keep up with the demands of what their children say they want and even need. If children become too materially focused when they are young, it only gets worse as the children get older. Last year’s game system isn’t good enough anymore; now everyone at school has the even newer game system. Particularly in the U.S., people have way more “stuff” than they need, yet more stuff is constantly acquired. When life is about things, there are never enough material things to make bring true peace and contentment. Two people can be in the exact same circumstances (from a material perspective) but view their lives quite differently. While some people tend to focus on what is lacking, what they wish were different, and the things that are hard, grateful people accept the challenges for what they are, but keep their primary focus on the things in their lives that make them feel hopeful, positive, and uplifted. Since children model themselves after their parents, the most powerful way for parents to teach their children the value of feeling content and grateful with the status quo is to live in that way themselves.
- Gratitude leads to a relaxed state of mind and decreased stress. In the lives of parents and children, there are numerous sources of potential stress. Parents have responsibilities, work hard, and they know the buck stops with them. Conscientious parents feel the weight of responsibility to raise children who will ultimately become productive, happy, well-functioning adults. Children likewise have many potential sources of stress—from school and homework to anxiety-laden social interactions; teenagers have the daunting task of figuring out who they are as individuals which can be a stressful process in and of itself. Research has shown that when people think about those things (including people!) for which they are grateful, their bodies respond by going into a more relaxed state. A side note is that we all function better when we are getting enough sleep; a more relaxed state of mind promotes better sleep for parents and children alike.
- Gratitude leads to improved emotional regulation. Viktor Frankl, a famous psychoanalyst and survivor of a Nazi concentration camp, stated in his book A Man’s Search for Meaning, “Everything can be taken from a man but one thing: the last of the human freedoms—to choose one’s attitude in any given set of circumstances, to choose one’s own way.” Grateful parents teach that there is a difference between what happens to a person and how that person chooses to respond. It’s quite easy for children to confuse those things that happen, their emotions about what has happened, and how they respond behaviorally. For this reason, children will sometimes attempt to explain their behavior by telling what happened just before their reaction: “She was making faces at me; that’s why I hit her!” People who blame external factors for their own behavior tend to feel powerless which leads to emotional dysregulation. By contrast, those who feel empowered to choose how to respond (not react) to external factors feel comparably empowered and in control (and thereby, happier) no matter what happens.
I’ve highlighted a few clear ways in which living with gratitude can enhance family life, but gratitude enhances the quality of life for individuals and families in many other ways as well. For instance, according to the research, people who feel grateful feel more connected to others which has obvious implications for families. Living life with gratitude goes beyond keeping a mental tally of those things for which you know you “should be” thankful, and it goes beyond keeping a gratitude journal, although these and other similar practices can help people begin to naturally approach life, in general, with more gratitude. Even if your child is exhibiting symptoms or behaviors that concern you, the wonderful news is that significant positive changes and healing are possible. Ultimately, experiencing life with a grateful heart colors all of life’s events, experiences, and relationships.