Gratitude Is More Than Simply Saying Thank You
There is a general sense that children today are unhappier and more ungrateful than they were a generation ago. On the face of it, it seems strange. Our children have more than we could have ever imagined—more gadgets, more clothes, more experiences, more opportunities—and yet somehow it just does not seem to be enough.
In reality, though, it all makes sense. You see, our brains’ responses to rewards and threats evolved at a time when finding sweeter berries and larger streams of water was essential for our survival. These responses are still deeply embedded in our neural structure, even though the world in the 21st century bears little resemblance to the world of our hunter-gatherer forefathers.
As we continued to survive as a species, we developed neural and societal structures that also enabled us to thrive. We began living in tribes and depending on each other for our well-being. We developed character traits, most notably gratitude, that grounded us in our place in the larger social structure and recognized that our successes rested on many shoulders.
But now we have been catapulted into this new era of endless opportunities. Our children are growing up with an entirely different mindset than the one we had. We tell our children that they can be anything they want, and that their success is in their hands. These well-meaning mantras blind our children to the people and opportunities around them that are improving their lives. This does matter. Our success as a species has always depended on our interactions, our bonding, and the creativity that flows through teamwork. Isolating ourselves in tiny bubbles of self-esteem and hoping we will fly high is wishful thinking.
When we place ourselves at the center of our worlds, we may reap the rewards, but we also take the fall when things do not go as planned. There is an escalation of expectations we place on ourselves, making it more likely that we will not be able to achieve our goals, resulting in feelings of failure. There is a reason depression and suicide are eating up our children in increasing numbers and at alarmingly younger ages.
Even when we do get what we want, there is always the regret of the path not chosen and the opportunity cost associated with it. Knowing that our success depends on more factors than just our own greatness makes us realize that things could have gone differently, and lets us feel grateful for all the people and opportunities that helped make it happen, even in small and inconceivable ways. This results in a feeling of connection, which is essential for our well-being as the most social animal on the planet.
Calming the Insatiable Greed for More
Gratitude is more than connection. It calms the ancient circuitry in the brain that perpetually seeks better and more, so that we can function with our more recent human excellence. This is especially important for children, even more so in this age of unlimited choice, each one more enticing than the last. Our children have not yet developed the executive functions that can guide them through comprehensive decision-making. They operate with the emotional brains that insatiably seek instant pleasures. Gratitude calms those neural networks and enables them to know when to stop, sit back and take in the good of what they have received. Voila, planting the seeds of happiness.
The Role of Parents
We cannot change their brains, but we can turn our children gently toward the direction of gratitude and contentment. First, we need to limit the choices in their lives. The emotional brain that evolved to maximize reward and minimize pain did not ever fathom 150 types of Barbie dolls, of cookies, of markers. By providing our children with a few good options and letting them decide from among them, we save the energy spent on needless decisions and free it up for more creative functioning.
Secondly, we need to model gratitude. We have gratitude not because we are exceptional, but because we grew up with seeing gratitude being modeled in our homes. It was part of the culture, part of the daily lingo. Today, we barely stop to give thanks for anyone or anything in our lives. In fact, we actively complain about many things—most of all our children and their attitude. Labeling them as ungrateful is hardly going to be the impetus for them to become grateful children. We need to do better.
Gratitude is firstly about noticing the good that has happened in our lives. It is then about being genuinely grateful to the people or opportunities that helped make those good things possible. And finally, it is about wanting to give back. Gratitude is not only about feeling good, but also about doing good. It is, in effect, a virtuous act of generosity and compassion. When we truly appreciate what has been done for us, we have an innate urge to reciprocate. Research has shown us time and again that we humans are wired to do kind acts. Doing something good for someone makes both parties happy—it is evolution’s way of ensuring our well-being. In today’s world, children grow up constantly asking “What’s in it for me?” Gratitude may be just what the doctor ordered.
Inspired by the research linking happiness to gratitude, I had my four children begin keeping gratitude journals three nights a week. As I flicked through pages of my little one’s journal a few weeks later, I was shocked by the very first entry that read:
“I’m grateful I do not have to write in this silly journal tomorrow night.” Every subsequent entry said the same thing…until the eighth. That read: “I am grateful we got cupcakes at school today because they had sprinkles on them.” The twelfth entry read: “I am grateful I share my room with [her older sister] because I get really scared at night.” And last night, it read: “I am grateful I have a nice home, because some people do not.”
I am hopeful. Children do as they see you do, not as you tell them to do. It is in our hands to imbue them with a culture of gratitude so that they grow up as contented and caring individuals. No human being lives in a bubble. The sooner we burst our children’s, the better we will equip them for life.