Expressing Gratitude in Big Ways and Small
Why regular thanks can make us healthier, and tips to start gratitude traditions in your home
By Courtney Cairns Pastor
My 7-year-old son’s gratitude journal provided a peek into the priorities and values of a second grader.
His teachers at Corbett Prep slid the booklet across the table for his father and me to check out during our fall parent-teacher conference. We smiled at the fact that his cat got top billing (“because she is funny,” he wrote). Dad appeared in the next entry for the time he spends playing with him. Then there was some appreciation for mom for helping him with his homework. The next several pages returned to the same theme—video games; the ones he liked, the ones he excelled at, the ones he played with his friends.
Not exactly what I would have named in my gratitude journal, but what goes on the list is less important than the act of making the list. Regular gratitude practice can make both adults and kids happier and healthier, studies show.
Robert Emmons, a psychology professor at University of California, Davis, has done extensive research on gratitude and found that people who kept gratitude journals exercised more regularly, were more optimistic and felt less stress. They made more progress toward their goals and were seen as more generous and helpful. The benefits extend to kids, too. Kids who practice grateful thinking hold more positive attitudes about school and their families, research says.
Or, as my son explained, his class keeps gratitude journals because their teachers said it “helps your mind feel good.”
That’s a pretty great goal.
A gratitude journal is just one way to get into a habit of thankfulness. Here are five tips for practicing gratitude that your family can feel good about.
Be specific: Most of us could come up with a quick gratitude list — health, home and family would top mine. But how much thought really went into that? Take a few more moments to ask yourself why you would have made certain choices, and you’ll have a more meaningful experience. Corbett Prep teachers prompt students to go beyond their initial responses and explore the “because.” “I have gratitude for my family,” one second grader wrote, “because they keep me company when I am at home, and when I am sick and go to the doctor, they are there for me.”
Give back: Shift the focus from yourself to others. It’s natural for kids to dwell on what they want (and what they don’t have). Move the conversation to giving by asking them to make a list of gifts they could give others. Creating a special picture for a favorite aunt, baking cookies for the local fire station or drawing a card for a teacher are practical ideas for young children that can get them excited about giving rather than getting. Helping around the house can make an impression, too. Kids may appreciate dinner more once they have put in the hard work to help make it, for example.
Tell others: Writing thank you notes is about more than etiquette. You’re drawing attention to an act of kindness and showing appreciation. You’ll feel good and so will others when you say something nice to them. Corbett Prep’s PreK4 teachers made it part of the “share time” routine. After classmates presented their show-and-tell items, the rest of the class took turns expressing gratitude or complimenting them. You can model this at home by pointing out the good during daily life.
Offer prompts: Are you having trouble getting the conversation started? Try some prompts to encourage kids to describe their favorite place, a talent they have or a challenge they overcame. There are even scavenger hunts on Pinterest, where you can print out tasks for the family to complete, such as finding something that tastes amazing or keeps you healthy. My son likes ranking items so I will ask him for the three best/funniest/silliest things from his school day to get a sense of what is important to him.
Have some fun: Maybe a gratitude journal feels like a chore to you. Try a Happiness Jar and have your family write (short) messages on scrap paper about something good that happened or a quality you love about a child or spouse. You might not need to write at all — throw in a ticket stub from a fun outing or a shell that reminds you of vacation. You can plan to open it and read it together on Thanksgiving, New Year’s Eve or whenever you like. Crafty types may choose to paint stones with one word that appeals to you, decorate a faux pumpkin with positive messages or write on leaves for thoughtful fall decor. Or skip writing entirely and take photos on your smartphone of surprises during the day that make you feel gratitude.
Regardless of how you do it or what you put on your list, gratitude is a worthwhile pursuit. So go ahead and fill your gratitude journal or Happiness Jar with observations about your favorite video games, bingeworthy Netflix series or stunning sunset. You’re making your mind happier.
Courtney Cairns Pastor is the communications coordinator for Corbett Preparatory School of IDS, a private PreK3-8 school in North Tampa.