The grateful ped(agogue)

Why giving thanks may be a gift that gives to the giver

From the philosophers Epictetus and Confucius to our own parents and teachers, wise thinkers have always encouraged us to count our blessings. Joe Kirby puts this sage advice to the test, and explains why it’s great to be grateful.

The secret to happiness? Gratitude – or so the Greek philosopher Epictetus said in Rome, some 2000 years ago. In Ancient China, Confucius said it was ‘better to light one small candle of gratitude than to curse the darkness’. Buddhists put it even more succinctly: ‘grateful heart – peaceful mind’. For centuries, great thinkers around the world have taught this simple idea: ‘Want to be happy? Be grateful!’

Let’s put this ancient wisdom to the test of modern science and see what psychologists have learned. What actually happens when people express what they’re grateful for?

Research

Two decades of seminal psychological research studies have found that after practising gratitude, people say they feel happier. In two studies, people wrote nine weekly gratitude journal entries, or daily entries for two weeks.1 Both groups reported better wellbeing, optimism and social connectedness than control groups. These studies were replicated with a third group.2 In another study, people kept a daily gratitude journal for a week, and reported lasting increases in happiness, even six months later.3 A 2006 study found that practising gratitude raised and sustained positive mood.4 But this was only with adults. What about teenagers and children?

A 2006 study of 221 young teenagers asked them to list five things they felt thankful for daily for two weeks. This enhanced their optimism and life satisfaction and decreased negative emotion, including after a three-week follow-up.5 A 2009 study found that children with lower positive emotion levels especially benefit from gratitude interventions.6 Two more studies replicated the findings: writing gratitude letters increased participants’ happiness and life satisfaction.7,8 After ten years of clinical trials, the world’s leading scientific expert on the topic, Robert Emmons, concluded that gratitude makes a measurable, positive impact on happiness.9

Other researchers found that people reported that gratitude improved relationships.10,11,12 Further studies also found that expressing gratitude increases people’s patience.13,14

One complication comes out of this research. One study suggested weekly appreciative writing outperformed daily.15 Perhaps writing too frequently loses freshness and meaning?

A recent trial, just published this year, involved students seeking counselling for depression and anxiety, with clinically low levels of mental health. They were divided into three groups: one wrote gratitude letters, one group wrote their deepest thoughts about negative experiences, and one did not do any writing. What did they find? Those expressing gratitude reported significantly better mental health four weeks afterwards – and even larger effects 12 weeks afterwards.16 Perhaps Confucius was right.

Three applications in schools

How might we apply these research insights in schools?

1. Termly postcards to teachers

Once a term in forms, tutors can give students gratitude postcards to write to teachers that have made a difference in their lives. It is easy for students to forget how much teachers do for them. It makes children feel happy to notice and acknowledge those who support them. It also makes teachers feel happy to be thoughtfully appreciated. Teachers can model this by writing appreciative postcards to one pupil each day. If a school does this, each year, teachers will have written 200 cards, and there’d be some 10,000 acts of encouragement. Students like showing these to their parents to make them feel proud. Some display them proudly on their fridges at home. Some students I know even keep and frame postcards they earn over the years!

2. Termly postcards to families

In forms, tutors can ask students to write gratitude postcards to their own parents, siblings or families at the end of term. It is hard for children and teenagers to remember how much the adults and family members in their lives do for them, and how sad they’d be if they lost them. Students and parents feel much more positively about the school when they see how much their family relationships matter to teachers.

3. Thanks to end lessons and form

Every day, teachers and students make great efforts. Leaving lessons creates an opportunity for students and teachers to say ‘Thank you!’ to show they appreciate each other. If both say ‘thank you’ politely as they part, this creates a very upbeat atmosphere around the school. Combine this with a mantra – ‘It’s great to be grateful!’ – to encourage students who are appreciative. Assemblies on the benefits of gratitude can help children understand why it’s helpful in life to really notice the good things we have in our lives.

Applying the research of gratitude is a promising way of helping children, teachers and families feel happy about school.


References

1. Emmons, R. and McCullough, M. (2003) ‘Counting blessings versus burdens: an experimental investigation of gratitude and subjective well-being in daily life’, Journal of Personality and Social Psychology 84 (2) pp. 377–389.

2. Ibid.

3. Seligman, M. E., Steen T. A., Park N. and Peterson, C. (2005) ‘Positive psychology progress: empirical validation of interventions’, American Psychologist 60 (5) pp. 410–21.

4. Sheldon, K. M. and Lyubomirsky, S. (2006) ‘How to increase and sustain positive emotion: the effects of expressing gratitude’, The Journal of Positive Psychology 1 (2) pp. 73–82.

5. Froh, J. J., Sefick, W. J. and Emmons, R. A. (2008) ‘Counting blessings in early adolescents: an experimental study of gratitude and subjective well-being’, Journal of School Psychology 46 (2) pp. 213–233.

6. Froh, J. J., Kashdan, T. B., Ozimkowski, K. M. and Miller, N. (2009) ‘Who benefits the most from a gratitude intervention in children and adolescents?’, The Journal of Positive Psychology 4 (5) pp. 408–422.

7. Toepfer, S. M. and Walker, K. (2009) ‘Letters of gratitude: improving well-being through expressive writing’, Journal of Writing Research 1 (3) pp. 181–198.

8. Toepfer, S. M., Cichy, K. and Peters, P. (2012) ‘Letters of gratitude: further evidence for author benefits’, Journal of Happiness Studies 13 (10) pp. 187–201.

9. Emmons, R. A. (2013) Gratitude works! San Francisco, CA: Jossey-Bass.

10. Bartlett, M. Y. and DeSteno, D. (2006) ‘Gratitude and prosocial behavior: helping when it costs you’, Psychological Science 17 (4) pp. 319–325.

11. Lambert, N. M., Clark, M. S., Durtschi, J., Fincham, F. D. and Graham, S. M. (2010) ‘Benefits of expressing gratitude: expressing gratitude to a partner changes one’s view of the relationship’, Psychological Science 21 (4) pp. 574–580.

12. Grant, A. M. and Gino, F. (2010) ‘A little thanks goes a long way: explaining why gratitude expressions motivate prosocial behavior’, Journal of Personal and Social Psychology 98 (6) pp. 946–955.

13. DeSteno, D., Li, Y., Dickens, L. and Lerner, J. S. (2014) ‘Gratitude: a tool for reducing economic impatience’, Psychological Science 25 (6) pp. 1262–1267.

14. Dickens, L. and DeSteno, D. (2016) ‘The grateful are patient: heightened daily gratitude is associated with attenuated temporal discounting’, Emotion 16 (4) pp. 421–425.

15. Ibid. 3.

16. Wong, Y. J., Owen, J., Gabana, N. T., Brown, J. W., McInnis, S., Toth, P. and Gilman, L. (2018) ‘Does gratitude writing improve the mental health of psychotherapy clients? Evidence from a randomized controlled trial’, Psychotherapy Research 28 (2) pp. 192–202.