Oh, joy! An effective way to boost your teen’s happiness doesn’t cost a lot of money. In fact, some of the top strategies to increase gratitude, according to scientific research, aren’t just inexpensive — they’re actually free. This is especially great news because we know gratefulness drives happiness and overall well-being. Gratitude is linked to decreasing stress, boosting resilience, and developing a sense of mattering to the world.
Skeptical? Read on for an eye-opening conversation with Dr. Maryam Abdullah, Parenting Program Director at the Greater Good Science Center at UC Berkeley. I’m excited to bring you this latest Q&A.
Allison Gilbert: What are your top strategies for boosting gratitude in teens?
Maryam Abdullah: There are three primary opportunities for increasing gratitude in teenagers – some require action, others require special kinds of deliberate thinking
1) Keep a Journal
Writing in a journal is a very helpful practice for boosting gratitude levels. When adolescents take the time to write down what they’re grateful for, they tend to be more grateful, optimistic, and feel better about life overall. The Greater Good Science Center has developed nine tips for getting started. For example, we tell students it’s not important to write every day. But they should be as specific as possible about what makes them grateful. The act of writing is key. Research suggests translating thoughts into concrete language makes individuals more aware of them, deepening their emotional impact.
2) Write a Letter
Exciting research has been conducted about the power of students writing ‘thank you’ letters. In one study, students were asked to write a letter to someone they felt they didn’t thank properly in the past. They were then asked to read the letter out loud to that individual. The result? Students experienced increased levels of gratitude. And wonderfully, that uptick lasted for at least two months, if not more. It’s important to note why this process is so effective. Here are two reasons: Letter writing reminds teenagers of all the positive parts of their lives, and it forces them to recall how much others have cared for them over time. Generally speaking, life seems less hard and lonely if someone has taken a supportive interest in us. While visiting the giver in person amplifies these feelings, it’s not a requirement. A meaningful alternative is reading the letter aloud over a phone call or video chat. [For guidance on writing these kind of letters, check out this link with helpful strategies and tips.]
3) Rethink Support
Teens who treat themselves with kindness tend to be more grateful than those who don’t. This is a form of self-compassion, and it’s been found to decrease stress levels and increase resilience. Additionally, teens who are confident they have reliable sources of support (adults who are trustworthy, provide resources, offer helpful feedback) also tend to be more grateful. Parents should remind teens of all the adults who care for them. [For concrete and actionable ideas, read this.]
AG: Do some tools work better than others for parents of older teenagers? How about tweens?
MA: There are differences, you’re right. A sense of autonomy grows during adolescence and making gratitude practices a requirement doesn’t work; it may even backfire. Letting teens carve their own path will lead to more authentic opportunities for expression. For example, older teens may prefer simply writing in a gratitude journal. It’s also important for parents to recognize an older teen’s romantic relationship can become a meaningful context for experiencing gratitude.
University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill professor Andrea Hussong’s work suggests parents who have younger adolescents are able to embed gratitude-related activities into their routines. Parents can choose activities to do with their tweens like a beach clean-up day to foster the experience of gratitude.
AG: How important is it for schools to be part of the gratitude discussion?
MA: Communicating the value of gratitude and elevating its routine practice at school, where teens spend the bulk of their waking hours, is tremendously important. Gratitude nurtures and deepens connections among students, teachers, and administrators. We also know the more grateful a high school student is the higher their grade point average is likely to be. Students who are grateful, for example, tend to be more socially integrated and less depressed. Although researchers have yet to clearly explain the mechanisms for these links, the findings also suggest that gratitude seems to influence students to pursue intrinsic goals like personal growth and connection with community rather than extrinsic goals like fame, image, and wealth. Students who have kept gratitude journals report being more satisfied with their experiences at school, which makes it more likely that they’ll feel more excited and interested to go to school.
AG: What if schools don’t have enough money to put a gratitude program in place? What can parents do?
MA: The Greater Good Science Center launched the Youth Gratitude Project (YGP). In addition to advancing the knowledge of how to measure and develop gratitude in children, the YGP created and tested a gratitude curriculum for middle and high schoolers. It’s called, Thanks! A Strengths-Based Gratitude Curriculum for Tweens and Teens, and it’s free, and you can get it here.
AG: Can teens play a role in getting their school to focus on gratitude?
MA: Absolutely! When teens regularly engage in gratitude practices, they can teach them to their peers. They can start a school club promoting a culture of gratitude. They can consider community service projects that promote gratitude in their hometown and report back to teachers and school administrators about their projects’ successes. The Youth Gratitude Project has multiple examples of activities that teens can try in their classrooms. For example, the “See the Good Challenge” involves leaving classmates or teachers at school “Thank You” notes in acknowledgment of specific acts of kindness.
AG: What are you working on right now at GGSC?
MA: As part of our new parenting initiative, Greater Good Parenting: Raising Caring, Courageous Kids, we are producing more content for parents. We are writing articles for parents about how to nurture strengths like gratitude, generosity, and forgiveness in their children for Greater Good. We’re also expanding Greater Good in Action to include practices specifically for parents. It’s such an exciting time for teenagers and their parents!
Like what you’ve read? If you have ideas for future Q&A’s (people to interview, topics to explore) email me at email@example.com. I’d love to hear from you!