Piglet noticed that even though he had a Very Small Heart, it could hold a rather large amount of Gratitude."
- A.A. Milne
From the time we are young, we learn about being thankful from our parents, teachers, books and TV. According to Psychology Today, children under the age of 6 only say thank you about 20 percent of the time. By age 10, when they begin to develop cognitive empathy skills, this increases to 80 percent. We all have the capacity to be grateful, but with the hustle, bustle and challenges of life, we may forget the immense value that gratitude can provide to ourselves and those around us.
Research shows that regular expression of gratitude actually triggers physiological changes that have a profound effect on both our physical and mental health. These benefits have a domino effect, reaching other people and aspects of our lives. People who practice gratitude regularly are found to exercise more; sleep better; be more optimistic, alert, enthusiastic, determined; report less depression and stress; feel more connected to others; and even have lower levels of heart disease. Research on children who practice gratitude shows similar results, as well as kids reporting more satisfaction with school. It is possible to increase focus on gratitude for ourselves and our children in very simple ways:
• Keep a gratitude journal: There are many different ways to do this, but it can be as simple as writing one thing each day for which you are grateful. Children can draw pictures or cut things from a magazine. There are even apps to help. Research reported in the Harvard.edu newsletter shows just this one act can significantly increase well-being and satisfaction.
• Talk about gratitude: Set aside time each day to talk with a significant other to share thoughts of gratitude. You might each share the best thing that happened in your day or one thing about the other for which you are grateful.
• Dinner table "Gratefuls" -- Before dinner have each person at the table share one thing for which they are grateful. This can become a nightly ritual that children anticipate, helping them (and adults) pay attention throughout the day to things they may be able to share that night.
• Gratitude letter: Psychology Today suggests writing a letter thanking someone and then reading it aloud to that person. This could be an excellent Thanksgiving tradition -- choose the name out of a hat of a person who will be at the table, write a gratitude letter, and then go around the table reading each letter.
• Gratitude jar: Keep small pieces of paper and a pen near a large jar in a central area of the home or office. People can write notes of gratitude and place them in the jar throughout the week. Then, at a regularly planned time each week, the family, staff or other group can read the notes aloud.
• Meditate or pray: Set aside time each day to be still and focus on all the things for which you are grateful. Kept to brief time periods (one or two minutes), even young children can use this exercise.
• Be present: Mindfulness exercises can be adapted to focus on gratitude. For example, think of the five senses and count down things to appreciate in the moment: five things you see, four things you hear, three things you smell, two things you feel, and one thing you taste.
• Gratitude trigger: Associate thoughts of being grateful with a particular item. It could be something you drive or walk past every day like a park bench or tree, something you wear like a charm bracelet, or something you hear on the radio. Every time you encounter that item, think of one thing for which you are grateful.
• Teach gratitude: Research shows that teaching children about gratitude is very effective. Jeffrey Froh from Hofstra University has created a simple and effective curriculum that can be found at http://col.st/BVgcz.
Stephanie Seng is director of the Center for Family and Couple Therapy, part of the Marriage and Family Therapy Program in the Colorado State University Department of Human Development and Family Studies. For more information, see www.cfct.chhs.colostate.edu.