Kathleen Cormier is trying to instil a sense of gratitude in her sons, aged 12 and 17. But sometimes she wonders if other parents have given up.
Some of her sons’ peers, she says, are lacking in the basics of gratitude, such as looking adults in the eye to thank them. The saddest part, she says, is that many parents don’t even expect their children to be grateful any more. They are accustomed to getting no acknowledgment for, say, devoting their weekend to driving them from activity to activity. There is “such a lack of respect”, she says.
Every generation seems to complain that children “these days” are so much more entitled and ungrateful than in years past. This time, they may be right. In today’s selfie culture, which often rewards bragging and arrogance over kindness and humility, many people are noticing a drop-off in everyday expressions of gratitude.
In a 2012 national online poll of 2000 adults, commissioned by the John Templeton Foundation, 59 per cent of those surveyed thought that most people today were “less likely to have an attitude of gratitude than 10 or 20 years ago”. The youngest group, 18 to 24-year-olds, were the least likely of any age group to report expressing gratitude regularly (35 per cent) and the likeliest to express gratitude for self-serving reasons (“it will encourage people to be kind or generous to me”).
“In some communities, specifically among the white middle and upper-middle class, there’s good reason to believe that kids are less grateful than in the past,” says psychologist Richard Weissbourd, faculty director of the Making Caring Common initiative at Harvard’s graduate school of education. He places much of the blame on the self-esteem movement.
As Weissbourd sees it, parents were fed a myth that if children feel better about themselves — if parents praise them, cater to their every need and make them feel happy — it will help them to develop character. “But what we’re seeing in many cases is the opposite,’’ he says. “When parents organise their lives around their kids, those kids expect everyone else to as well, and that leads to entitlement.’’ And when children are raised to feel entitled to everything, they are left feeling grateful for nothing.
A growing body of research points to the many psychological and social benefits of regularly counting your blessings. The good news for parents: it also suggests that it’s never too late for their children to learn the subtle joys of appreciating the good in their lives. Gratitude can be cultivated at any age, whether it finds expression as a mood, a social emotion or a personality trait.
Researchers find that people with a grateful disposition are more thankful for a wider variety of things in their lives, such as their friends, their health, nature, their jobs or a higher power — and that they experience feelings of gratitude more intensely. For them, gratitude isn’t a one-off “thank you”. It’s a mindset, a way of seeing the world.
“Gratitude is also a spiritual emotion, whether it’s implicitly or explicitly expressed,” says David Rosmarin, director of the spirituality and mental health program at McLean Hospital and an assistant professor at Harvard medical school. Almost every religion includes gratitude as part of its value system, he says, citing familiar practices such as prayers of thanks or blessings over food.
In a study led by Rosmarin, published in 2011 in The Journal of Positive Psychology, researchers surveyed more than 400 adults online, assessing their religious and general gratitude, religious commitment, and mental and physical wellbeing. The researchers found, in keeping with past studies, that general gratitude was associated with less anxiety, less depression and greater wellbeing.
– Jennifer Breheny Wallace
Read more: Teaching Gratitude
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