What if you could give your teen a secret inner strength to raise their confidence, protect their mental health, and ensure lifelong access to optimism? Positive psychology researchers say you can, and that secret strength is gratitude. Studies show that practicing gratitude causes lasting changes in the brain that are particularly impactful for teens. And because the teenage brain is still developing, making gratitude a regular practice can help teens lock in healthy habits they’ll carry with them for the rest of their lives. Here, we explain the science behind gratitude and share four ways you can start a gratitude practice with your family.
What it is:
Oxford Languages defines gratitude as the quality of being thankful; readiness to show appreciation for and return kindness. We all know what it means to be grateful, but brain changes are triggered by powerful emotions, not just words. Imagine your heart overflowing with gratitude for all of life’s blessings. The cascade of good feelings unleashes gratitude’s benefits.
How it works:
Numerous studies link gratitude to increased activity in the prefrontal cortex, the part of the brain responsible for logic, learning, and decision making. Gratitude also increases serotonin and activates the production of dopamine, two neurotransmitters associated with happiness and well-being. Additional research correlates gratitude with feelings of positivity towards oneself and others and relief from stress.
Because the prefrontal cortex is developing until about age 25, teens process experiences with their more emotional limbic brains, especially the amygdala. That makes teens more susceptible to stress than adults: they don’t yet have the complete neurological framework to put things in perspective. A regular gratitude practice helps teens learn how to cultivate positive thoughts and emotions and shift their focus away from stressors. One study of adolescent victims of bullying even showed that gratitude lowered suicide risk among these vulnerable teens.
How to put it into practice:
Researchers say most teens (and adults!) need help making gratitude a habit. Consistency is key to shift the focus toward positive thoughts and feelings and away from negative ones. These four strategies are a great place to start:
- Share gratitude at mealtimes.
Lots of families share something they’re grateful for when they sit down to dinner together. You can make this practice even more meaningful by helping to strengthen the emotional connection. For example, after each person has shared, take a moment to close your eyes, hold hands, and give thanks silently or out loud. Or specifically share things you’re grateful for in each other: “Sebastian, it warmed my heart when you helped your granddad get out of the car yesterday. I see how much you care about others and how thoughtful you are. Thank you.”
- Keep a gratitude journal together.
In one study, participants who wrote about their grateful feelings felt significantly happier about themselves and more optimistic about their lives. Writing is powerful because it gives teens time to reflect on and really feel the positive emotions which, in turn, helps support those healthy changes in the brain. To make the habit sustainable for tech-savvy teens, download the free Three Good Things gratitude app (developed by a 17-year-old) and make it a family goal to record and share your daily lists.
- Write gratitude letters.
Paper letters and thank you notes are quickly becoming a thing of the past, but there’s still something special about handwritten appreciation. Research has found that just by writing three letters of gratitude over time increased participants’ overall happiness and life satisfaction. Set an example by dropping a surprise note of gratitude in your teen’s backpack or writing all the things you love about them in their birthday card. Then keep a stack of thank you notes, envelopes and stamps on hand and encourage them to write notes to teachers, coaches, family members, friends, or mentors they feel grateful for.
- Empower teens to spread gratitude to others.
Gratitude is contagious in the best way: when we tell someone we’re grateful for them, they feel good, and they’re more likely to share those positive vibes with others. When your teen is in on the secret, they’re perfectly poised to spread gratitude and empathy among their friends and peers. Teach them that gratitude is a great way to support someone who’s feeling down or needs a confidence boost. Simply letting someone know, “I see you and I’m grateful for you” is one way teens can share the love with others– and make themselves feel great, too!