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Game Changer

By Lorraine Miller

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.

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.