Game Changer

Author // Lorraine Miller, Holistic Lifestyle Coach, H.C., AADP

Gratitude can change the lives of young people. Meet Jeffrey Froh, Psy.D., who’s researching its wondrous effects.

Remember how exciting it felt as a kid to meet someone at the playground who liked the same things as you? That’s the feeling I got when I met Dr. Jeffrey Froh, Psy.D., assistant professor at Hofstra University, who runs a research lab focused entirely on studying the effects of gratitude in youth.

As a holistic lifestyle coach and author of From Gratitude to Bliss: A Journey in Health and Happiness, I have also chosen gratitude as the focus of my work, primarily the health and happiness that comes when one nurtures this emotion in his or her daily life. So you can imagine my excitement when I discovered someone else who shares my passion for this amazing gift.

I had the pleasure of meeting Dr. Froh, the keynote speaker at the 2012 Long Island Psychology Conference, and he was kind enough to spend some time with me. My hope is that this interview will introduce you to the magnificence gratitude can have in your child’s life, and hopefully yours, too.

What first inspired you to focus your work on gratitude in youth?

There was a time when I was working as a school psychologist and I had a student who I happened to really connect with. He came from a very low-income family and had to take the bus for an hour and a half to get to school. This poor kid had to get up at 5 a.m., and he was only 10 or 11 years old. He had a really long, hard day ahead of him. It was winter, and he didn’t have a winter coat.

One day, I saw him standing in the hallway with an oversize sport coat on. The district I worked in was a very affluent one where everyone wore the latest trends. Fora 10 year old to be wearing a sport coat, an oversize one nonetheless, that was not cool. Yet this kid was standing in the hallway and he was beaming from ear to ear. And he said, “Dr. Froh, Dr. Froh! Check this out!” So I asked him, “What’s going on?” and he said, “Mrs. [So-and-so] gave me this jacket. How cool is this?” He was so thankful for this old man’s sport coat, which his teacher was able to get for him from her church.

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And there it was. So many people were walking around with designer labels, and I began to wonder if they were grateful for the all the resources they had.

That for me was a huge moment. I thought what was going on with that student was very cool.

I did a lit search on gratitude to see what was being done out there and came across a classic article by Robert Emmons and Michael McCullough that was published in 2003. Long story short, they did a multi-study paper on an intervention of counting blessings, where people kept a gratitude journal either daily or weekly, and the effects they found were absolutely tremendous.

The reason this was so big was because this was the first time there was experimental evidence showing that keeping a [gratitude] journal was beneficial, whereas before, it was just grandmothers and kindergarten teachers telling us that this was a good thing.

When I read that, I said to myself, “Well this student, who I had just had an encounter with, seemed pretty grateful, and seemed pretty happy, even though his circumstances were bad. And we have some evidence at the adult level that doing an intervention might make people happier, so let me see if anyone is doing stuff with kids.” I learned that no one was doing anything with kids.

So I reached out to Bob Emmons. He and I connected and we did the first [gratitude] intervention with kids, and it’s been wonderful ever since.

What would you say are some ways kids can get started using gratitude to enrich their lives?

This also ties into what parents can do. Alex Wood, one of the leading gratitude researchers, asked a phenomenal question: “Why do grateful people feel grateful?” The answer was that they think differently when they receive a benefit.

Specifically when someone does something kind for you, you think about three things:

You think about how intentional that kind act was, and to what degree they went out of their way to do this.

Then you think about how much it costs that person, not just in money, but in time, energy and other resources.

And then, finally, you consider the benefit to yourself for that kind act, gift, etc.

The degree to which you process receiving something good with these thoughts (cost, intent and benefit), the more grateful you are.

In terms of what things kids can do, they can start to process the good in their life with these kinds of thoughts.

With the younger ones, this is something an adult will have to guide them to do. We’ve done this with our son already. He’s 5 1/2. If a friend helps him with his homework we would say, “Wow, that was really nice of Ryan to help you out. We understand that Ryan gave up riding his bike to help you, and we know that’s a really big deal for him.” So you’re basically telling him the cost without saying, “This is the cost.” This is a really, really big concept, and it’s what we based our current study on. We also used this to create a curriculum that actually teaches kids to think gratefully.

How do you reinforce these concepts on a daily basis?

I think initially there needs to be some adult involvement. The older the child, the sooner you can back off and hope it takes its natural course.

For our son, I will point out to him something so simple like the beauty of nature, the sunset or the changing of leaves. I’ll show him how to be grateful for life itself and for everything we’re given daily. And now he does it on his own. He’ll come to me and say, “Hey Dad, look at this flower, how pretty is that?”

Modeling what it looks like to be a grateful person is also critical. You have to wonder, “If it works for other good behaviors and also bad behaviors, why wouldn’t it work for this?” And the answer is that it does. This is something I think parents should be a little more aware of.

What are some of the obstacles kids might face when it comes to being grateful?

There are a few. Number one, the distractions kids face. They have their iPods on while they’re texting, walking or playing a game. They just have so much going on that they’re not slowing down and thinking about things. Which ties into another obstacle, which is a lack of reflection and lack of processing the good stuff that someone has going on.

This is why most nights, when I put my son to bed, I’ll ask him, “Give me your three best things of the day,” because even if he’s not reflecting, then I’m guiding him to reflect on the good stuff.

Another huge obstacle is materialism. The values that materialism deals with, specifically fame, wealth and image, run counter to the values that a grateful person would have, specifically competency, autonomy and relatedness. What we find is that the more materialistic people are, kids and adults, the less grateful they are. So we think that’s a very, very big obstacle.

It’s a big reason why people feel unfulfilled in their lives because they’re not taking the time to look back and say, “I accomplished this,” or “This happened, this is good.” I love this reflection, and I think it’s a really beautiful thing to focus on with kids.

It ties into being mindful, instead of mindless, when we do things. Being mindful in the moment is absolutely imperative to being grateful. Absolutely critical.

Why do you think it’s important for children to express gratitude? What are the real benefits?

In our research we’ve found that grateful kids tend to be much happier than their less-grateful counterparts. They are much more satisfied with their lives, they tend to be more pro-social, and they tend to report more meaning in life.

They also report better GPAs. They report much better, stronger and more supportive relationships. They also report more community involvement and a real desire to use their strengths to better their neighborhoods, so that, of course, is tremendous as well. They also report being less delinquent, meaning they are less likely to cheat on exams, skip school, or have been suspended or expelled. And the list just goes on and on.

It’s blowing our minds all the stuff we’re finding that being grateful is related with.

Did you find any health benefits?

Health benefits were only self-reported—and I love that you asked that, because that’s where a lot of people are going, us included. We want to start looking at the physical health benefits of being grateful because some of the adult work has shown that grateful people report lower blood pressure.

With kids, just as a starter, what we found is that they report fewer physical complaints. But that was only self-report. We really want to get objective data such as blood pressure, resting heart rate, body mass index, things of that sort.

But the self-report is interesting because it can indicate less complaining in general and greater resilience. The mind-body connection is one of the areas of gratitude research that I am most interested in because it offers scientific proof that shows how your thoughts affect you physically. You mentioned blood pressure, but the research also measured cortisol levels and how this stress hormone goes down by 23 percent when you practice gratitude. Stress is epidemic in our society and is one of the areas I help people with in my coaching work.

Yes, Alex Wood has done studies on stress where adults also report better sleep quality. And in the intervention study I mentioned with Emmons and McCullough, they found that people who kept a gratitude journal daily or weekly reported exercising more. So there are many physical benefits, for sure.

What stories can you share about specific triumphs or transformations kids have experienced by practicing an attitude of gratitude?

The one that comes to mind is a situation where a student from my Behavior Modification class was transformed, largely on the part of her mother’s transformation as a result of the student’s intervention. In class I discussed what’s called a gratitude visit, which involves thinking of someone you’ve never quite thanked, writing a letter to that person, delivering it to he or she in person, and then reading it to him or her.

Some weeks later one of my students—an undergraduate who is about 19—told me she did the gratitude visit with her mom. She said her mom was severely depressed, hadn’t left the house in a very long time, and slept all day with the shades down, and that it was very hard to see her like that. The student decided to write a letter to her and describe why she loved her and why she was thankful for her. The student said, “At first she could barely look at me, but as the letter went on she was able to make eye contact with me and we both shared some tears.” The student reported that there was definitely more pep in her mother’s step for about a week or two, but over time she did go back into her depressed state. The student was really transformed because she got to see her mom react, even though it was for just a blip of time, just a week or two, in a way that she hadn’t seen in months. So that particular student thought to herself, “Holy cow, this stuff is pretty powerful.”

I think this is very empowering for people, not just kids, who have sick family or depressed family. Those experiences can leave you feeling so disempowered, yet here she was able to do something, something that really made a difference. And it’s so easy.

That’s what I love about it. It’s free! It’s a very cool thing you can do for yourself and for others. You really can live a more fulfilling life just by changing your orientation, even just a little bit.

Yes. We know we live in the country with the highest standard of living, we have everything we could possibly need, and yet we have tons of people on anti-depressants and anti-anxiety medications. We have stress-related illness. It just doesn’t make sense. I really feel like this is the missing ingredient in our lives.

I agree with you, this is definitely big.

To close, what do you love most about your work with youth?

It’s very simple. I’m just very passionate about helping kids lead fulfilling and meaningful lives. Gratitude, as far as the signature strengths, has the strongest relationship with life satisfaction. So if you want to make life better, this seems like a pretty good way to go.

We need to also consider that smoking cigarettes can decrease your life by about 7 years, but making yourself happier has been related with adding 10 years to your life.

Here we have this one key ingredient that’s also free. It’s very easy to do, it’s not going to cost you anything, and it’s just a different way of looking at the world. It’s simply life orientation. It is so awesome to be in a position where, wow, we can teach kids to process their everyday experiences just a little differently and by doing so we can make their lives more enriching. To me, that’s just priceless.

Wow. That’s beautiful. It is priceless. It’s so, so powerful and to think of where it can go, one kid at a time, as they become adults it can really impact everything.

It’s a lifelong orientation and you can start young. Like anything else, if you nurture it properly and take care of it, and model it, your kids can be grateful. It’s pretty simple.

Pathways Issue 37 CoverThis article appeared in Pathways to Family Wellness magazine, Issue #37.

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