Many people think of happiness as a matter of luck and temperament. If you have the good fortune to be born with a cheerful personality and life hands you a bunch of good breaks, then you'll be happy. Face various external miseries, and you'll be miserable.
But that's not what scientists find when they study happiness. Whether they look at lottery winners, Olympic medalists, paraplegics, or everyday people, the data indicates that a huge chunk of emotional well being isn't about circumstances; it's about attitude and approach. In other words, we're all dealt a better or worse hand when for positivity, but happiness is still largely down to set of skills you can learn.
That's particularly interesting news for parents, who are naturally keen to do everything in their power to help their kids live happy lives. Doing your best to improve your kid's material circumstances is only part of the battle. You also need to teach them to think and behave like a happy person. And according to a ton of research, one behavior tops the list of most impactful happiness skills -- gratitude.
The incredibly long list of gratitude's benefits
Before I get into how science says you can instill gratitude in your kids, it's worth running through the list of its benefits to illustrate why it's worth your time to do so. It shouldn't be a hard case to make. An incredible number of studies going back decades attest to gratitude's immense power to improve our lives. An incomplete list of benefits includes:
Physical benefits like better immune function and lower blood pressure
Better sleep and a sense of being more alive and awake during the day
More positive emotions, including greater joy and pleasure
More optimism; studies even show gratitude can rewire your brain to make it easier to see the positive in life
Greater generosity and compassion, and less loneliness.
A leg up in the race for success in life
And that's just the scientific case for gratitude. Common sense (and probably personal experience) also tell us that dealing with ungrateful, entitled brats is unpleasant for both their parents and those unfortunate enough to have to interact with them outside the family. Gratitude won't just make your kids happier. It'll make your life more pleasant. The case for instilling it in your kids, in other words, is rock solid.
How to raise more grateful kids
So what does science have to say about how to raise more grateful kids? As with most positive traits, modeling it yourself is an essential foundation. But UC Berkeley's Greater Good Science Center recently shared four additional, research-backed tips on nurturing this all important happiness skill in your kids. Here they are in brief:
Help young children understand feelings. One recent study showed that the more preschoolers knew about emotions, the more gratitude they felt when they reached school age. The Greater Good article suggests parents build "scaffolds for [kids] emerging gratefulness by giving them the language for the array of emotions and thoughts they and others may feel and think." One simple way to do this is to ask your child, "How do you think that person feels right now?"
Remind older children you are there for them. "Older children who feel that their parents and teachers are sources of support they can call upon tend to feel grateful," notes the article. Besides the basics of good, reliable parenting, you can try prompting older kids to reflect "on their network of supportive grown-ups" and "on specific times of distress when these adults were sources of comfort and strength to them, and on how they felt upon receiving support."
Encourage your kids to participate in gratitude-rich activities. No shock here. "Participating in gratitude-rich activities like family gratitude practices and volunteering can help kids to develop gratitude," science says. Though studies also show packing boxes at your local food pantry, say, may prompt your child to worry about whether she could end up hungry too, so make sure your choice of activities is age appropriate and aligns with your parenting goals, as well as the character of the specific child.
Communicate the value of gratitude to your children. This is another no-brainer, but it's easy for parents to overlook in the swirl of day-to-day life. "Have conversations with children regularly about the importance you place on gratitude. Engage children to think creatively about how they could express gratitude for others and talk about others' positive responses to their efforts. Practice gratitude in front of your child and tell them how you feel when they express gratitude to you," the post reminds parents.