With Thanksgiving right around the corner, ’tis the season for reflecting on all we have to be grateful for. Before the gift-giving frenzy that usually closes out the year, this is a great opportunity to teach our kids—and the entire family, including us parents—gratitude. It can even help counteract the winter and holiday blues that so many people experience at this time of year.
Of course, we should also keep in mind that this practice is just that: a practice. It will strengthen over time, eventually becoming second nature. But the Thanksgiving and holiday season offers the perfect excuse to begin or renew your family’s commitment to recognizing and appreciating all they have, and then spreading that goodwill. Here are a few ideas for kickstarting the process and shaping those healthy habits that will pay dividends year-round.The Thanksgiving and holiday season offers the perfect excuse to begin or renew your family’s commitment to recognizing and appreciating all they have, and then spreading that goodwill. Click To Tweet
How Gratitude Improves Mental Health
There have been numerous studies on the positive effects of gratitude, such as helping offset stress—an especially important function in our busy, information-overload society—and enhancing mental health over the long term. When you combine these effects throughout an entire family, the ripple effects can be remarkable.
The Greater Good Science Center at the University of California, Berkeley, has reported on the various ways gratitude can change individuals and their brains. One research study involved nearly 300 adults, predominantly college students who were seeking mental health counseling and thus reporting compromised mental health, including symptoms of depression and anxiety. All participants received counseling services, but people in one group were instructed to write one letter of gratitude to another person each week for three weeks. This group reported significantly better mental health 4 weeks and 12 weeks after the exercise concluded.
Researchers shared some possible insights on what may cause these positive psychological benefits. For example, they noted that gratitude practices take focus away from negative emotions in the moment, but gratitude’s positive effects have lasting impacts, even many weeks later. Later, fMRI scan results showed that brain activity had actually changed for the participants who had performed the gratitude letter-writing practices (including “greater neural sensitivity” in the brain’s medial prefrontal cortex, which is an area associated with learning and decision making). The researchers concluded that “practicing gratitude may help train the brain to be more sensitive to the experience of gratitude down the line, and this could contribute to improved mental health over time.”
Ways to Teach Your Family and Kids Gratitude
Looking to instill a greater sense of gratitude in your kids and other family members? Try some of these tried-and-true tactics:
1. Keep a gratitude journal. It’s not only letter writing that does the trick—research shows that you can experience the benefits of the practice even without sharing gratitude-focused thoughts. Gratitude journaling—for example, writing down three things to be grateful at the start or end of each day—can be especially helpful for those with anxiety, thanks to its forced shift toward positive thoughts.
Specifically, gratitude practitioners activate the parasympathetic nervous system, which is the part of the nervous system involved in rest and relaxation. Gratitude has also been shown to potentially improve markers of heart failure, such as inflammation, while other studies have shown that practicing mindfulness and gratitude can lessen depression and stress, and increase overall happiness. Certain subsets of the population also benefit, as gratitude may create greater life satisfaction in seniors, or reduce stress and depressive symptoms among healthcare practitioners. Getting kids involved at a young age helps solidify these habits so that they’re better equipped to handle whatever life throws at them.
2. Turn Thanksgiving into a give-back opportunity. Before, during, and after this year’s holiday season, find ways for your entire family to help out—perhaps through donating food to a local charity, or by working at a food kitchen or other charitable event. Or you could enlist your kids and spouse to go through the closets and toy bins at home, teaching them to donate their belongings for those less fortunate. You could even make any of these options a quarterly or twice-yearly practice for the whole family.
Giving back, of course, goes hand in hand with gratitude. We’ve all heard that it’s better to give than receive, but it turns out that scientific evidence backs up this advice. The giver receives both in the moment of giving, and as a feel-good aftereffect, leading to many benefits—from improved physical and emotional well-being to lowered risks of dementia and depression. Even basic forms of giving, like donating, volunteering, or simply helping a friend, can trigger the release of happiness-boosting neurochemicals.
The Journal of Social Psychology reported a study in which 86 participants ranked their life satisfaction, after which one group was instructed to perform an act of kindness every day for 10 days. This group reported significantly increased levels of happiness—perhaps because giving back stimulates the mesolimbic pathway, which is the reward center in the brain. That, in turn, releases endorphins, producing a feeling that’s sometimes called the “helper’s high.”
Still, you can always make it more fun by mixing and matching your efforts throughout the year: Help or organize a fundraiser, participate in a beach or park cleanup effort, or—ideal for Thanksgiving—donate to a local food bank. To get your kids more involved, ask them what effort or cause draws their attention, and afterward solicit their opinions on what they liked best. Getting input from the whole family will make it a true team effort.
3. Write thank-you notes to family, teachers, and other unsung heroes. Thanking the people who have helped in your and your kids’ lives have been shown to benefit both the giver and receiver, according to a study published in Psychological Science. Interestingly, this study found that, when compared with the actual reactions of the gratitude recipients, many potential letter writers shied away from sharing their gratitude in this way because they underestimated how surprised and positive recipients would feel, and they overestimated how awkward recipients would feel. When your family recognizes all the positive impacts that are possible—on both sides of the thank-you—they will be more likely to continue this practice.
Even a small effort to express gratitude can have positive effects. In a study among young adult college students, researchers found that participants who wrote just 3 letters of gratitude over an 8-week period showed improvements in 2 of the 3 studied “sub-domains of well-being”: happiness and gratitude. However, the participants were instructed to choose “something significant” they felt grateful for (versus something minor, like a birthday gift), then in the letters to “be reflective, write expressively, and compose letters from a positive orientation.” Therefore, make sure your family’s letters delve a little deeper into the gratitude expressed. As a bonus, this is also a great way to get the whole family to spend even more time reflecting on the positives in their lives, relationships, and community.
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