January 24, 2010

The Benefits of Gratitude in Family Life

Grateful Child

Practicing gratitude with your children encourages both humility and empowerment. It offers easy recognition of your family’s wealth and abundance – no matter your financial picture – and a desire to share that abundance with the world. This Raising Grateful Children teleclass recording teaches you how to inspire and instill the practice of gratitude in your child, while honoring her or his experience of life.

Cultivating and nurturing gratitude in our children is the beginning of a journey towards health, well-being, fulfillment, and generosity of spirit.

Gratitude offers benefits that range from the physical, to the psychological, to the spiritual, and affects both our inner and outer lives. Gratitude practice, in and of itself, bring us into creative co-creation with our day-to-day reality, our family and friends, the world, and colors our experience of all those things. Gratitude-colored glasses make everything look brighter!

In this look at why making a psychological and spiritual practice of gratitude in your family is such a good idea, we’ll just scratch the surface of some topics. For a deeper look into the pragmatics of the scientific angle, read The Science of Gratitude. For tips on creating more community- and service-based, interactive gratitude practice with your children, read 5 Ways to Engage Your Kids in Grateful Giving. For ways to bring gratitude, and the practice of it, easily and joyfully into the life of your close community, see How to Host a Gratitude Gathering.

If you’re ready to delve deeper into the subject matter, you can find all these articles in one package in the Gratitude Games Pro package.

Physical health benefits of gratitude:

Gratitude cancels out stress.

When your kid is facing some kind of trouble at school, or feeling your stress when you’re stuck in traffic, or feeling guilty for having done something they were reprimanded for, just like any of us, they’ll start thinking about all the reasons it’s horrible that they’re in the circumstances they’re in. If they’re anything like my younger daughter, they’re also very likely to begin thinking of all the other times that a similar thing happened.

Thoughts flock together, “…like birds of a feather,” as my mom says. As your kid starts playing free-association with how bad things are, it’s easy enough for them to start thinking, feeling, or even saying, as kids are known to do, “Why does this ALWAYS happen to me?” The thought cycle in a vicious circle, and your kid is left standing, or sitting, stewing in their own stress, discomfort, or sadness. Often it ends in heartbroken tears.

All the while, stress chemicals are streaming through your child’s body.

Now, in some cases stress can be a positive thing. Stress is designed to get us out of emergency situations. Stress makes it possible for us to run faster, jump higher, lift more weight than we normally could, and see more clearly. Acute stress heightens the senses, and our physical capabilities.

When stress chemicals – which produce what’s known as the “fight or flight response” – are put to use immediately, there’s nothing that can stand in for that jolt of dopamine, adrenaline and noradrenaline, and cortisol – also known as “the stress hormone”. Getting out of mortal danger is the most extreme example. More often, it’s less intense moments that benefit by the stress response; making that last sprint in a race, or when well-prepared, stress can even help you finish a test or an exam in record time, without losing accuracy.

When prepared to use the process of stress to your advantage, it’s more than helpful; it can be the difference between life and death, success and failure, goal completion or falling short of those goals.

However, in the case of chronic stress there’s no benefit. Without fail, the negative effects of long-term stress ravage the system. Stress is bad for the heart, anxiety levels, digestion, skin, sleep patterns, and more.

Most of us are not prepared to put stress to positive use. This is especially true for most children, who are sitting at desks with an abundance of energy that needs to be capped up daily and (ideally) used later. Often this in itself is a stressful situation.

Add in fight-or-flight, stress chemical inducing, crisis situations like regular pop-testing and exams, school-yard politics, and potential bullying, and you have a very little system on pretty major stress-overload.

When you notice stress creeping up on your child, you can help him or her gain resilience with many tools including relaxation techniques, positive visualization, and turning their attention towards gratitude. The refocus will allow your child’s system to cancel those stressful responses and turn towards a healthy thought process that leads to empowerment, focus, positivity, resilience, ease, and even joy.

This refocus is a practice, but the great thing about any practice is it that it gets easier over time. But like playing piano or becoming an athlete, or healing from stress or past trauma, there’s never a “best” – always a “better.” Healing is a process and a path. There is no final destination.

Gratitude heals the heart.

Less stress=healthier heart! Stress hormones wear the heart down. Gratitude is proven to stop the production of stress chemicals and to increase the body response that leads to – and is caused by – happiness. Why not choose a happy, healthy circle of emotional thought instead of that “vicious” one I mentioned before?

Gratitude makes your body “happy”.

Gratitude is known to increase enthusiasm, alertness, determination, and other happy, positive, empowered feelings. A study conducted with school-age children found that children who are grateful not only make friends more easily, they also have an easier time with academic achievement. Grateful children are happier children. And happier children are more resourceful children. Another study conducted in 2003 found that the regular practice of gratitude increases happiness by 25%.

Happy feelings lead to happy hormones and chemicals. Happy chemicals lead to a happy physiology. Happy leads to happy, basically. Start where you are, and grow your happiness, bit by bit.

Gratitude is a proven to be a highly effective way to increase happiness in your life. This fact can be seen as both a physiological and psychological benefit of gratitude, so it’s really a great place to jump to the next category of benefits; psychological benefits.

Psychological Benefits of Gratitude:

Gratitude allows us to repattern and reframe what we expect.

Whatever we pay attention to gets bigger. This is one area where we can absolutely count on a “return on investment.” Perhaps you’ve heard the saying, “Worrying is like praying for something you don’t want.” If you think about that statement, you’ll begin understanding why reconditioning what we expect is so important.

To illustrate this point, think of a search engine like Google. Say you don’t know how a search engine works. You type the first thoughts that come to mind into the search box. Say those thoughts are poverty, war, despair. And you get page after page of hits, all showing how awful the world is.

This is very much how our thought process works. The thoughts that are the first to arise when we think of things we want, things we need, even things we’ve experienced in the past, we create an expectation of what we’ll find or experience next. One of my mentors says, “We don’t get what we want, we get what we expect.” That’s where the whole praying for something we don’t want analogy comes in. my reverend says, “If you spend five minutes a day praying for what we want, and the rest of our 24 hours in a day worrying we won’t get it, which do you think wins out?”

Negative in, negative out. We walk through the world predicting what will happen next, and we notice how our experience almost always delivers exactly what we expected to find.

There’s no big magical “secret” about it; you notice what you’re prepared to notice. If there is any sort of secret, it’s this; the hidden truth is that every moment holds a potentially infinite number of possible outcomes. You will choose the one that allows you to be most right, stay most comfortable in your assumptions, and reliably predict your future experiences. This is often referred to as “staying in your comfort zone.”

Even when you think you want the opposite of what you keep predicting, expecting, and experiencing, the world delivers it – merely because it’s what you are more prepared to notice. And, noticing that which confirms your expectations makes you – you guessed it – comfortable.

Birds of a feather flock together; thoughts travel in packs.

Instead of investing in the possible negative outcome of your fears, gratitude helps you notice the good iny our life. And by noticing the things you’re grateful for – instead of steeling yourself against your fears – you seek, and find, more and more to be grateful for.

This is not only an amazingly liberating experience for you; it’s also wonderful modeling for your children. Moods are contagious. Habits are contagious. So is gratitude.

Gratitude may reduce the likelihood of depression.

Gratitude leads to a happier, healthier life. People who practice gratitude, or to whom gratitude comes naturally, have been found to have larger networks of support, and a more full life.

One risk is what psychologists call “hedonic adaptation.” Hedonic adaptation is a fancy term that means that we get used to the things that initially excite us. That’s why it’s important to always step-up your practice of gratitude. Just like building a muscle, learning how to play an instrument, or becoming more healthy, there’s always room for a new level of commitment and development.

The good news about adaptation is that it also happens with negative experiences, like loss, trauma, or any kind of emotional or physical pain. Over time, we get used to the state we’re in. Gratitude can help with the adaptation even more easily. Finding gratitude for the negative experiences we’ve experienced in our lives can speed the process of recovery from any kind of traumatic or painful experience.

Gratitude is linked with forgiveness, which is linked with healing from emotional scars.

Forgiveness is a key to recovery from psychological or emotional injury. Forgiveness may occur purely inside of yourself – through therapy, meditation, compassion exercises, prayer, or other practices – or through interaction with the one or ones that have been involved in any wounding you have experienced. The act of forgiving – yourself, as well as anyone else who has hurt you – allows you to grow through, and past, the pain.

Forgiveness is a great thing to model for your children. As we hold onto hurt, we grow more hurt. Or, to use a quote attributed to the Buddha:

You will not be punished for your anger, you will be punished by your anger.

If you move through anger with grace, love, and gratitude, your child will learn to as well.

Spiritual Benefits of Gratitude:

Gratitude opens the heart to the good in any situation, and the good in humanity.

When we begin seeing good in our experience, it’s easy to see it in others, and in their experience. Gratitude can lead to more trusting interactions, which lead to more experiences to be grateful for. It’s the act of noticing the good that already exists that allows the good to flourish in our lives, and in the world.

As your child sees and experiences gratitude in the home, and in their hearts, just like you they’ll begin finding more and more of it outside.

Gratitude offers solace in times of tragedy.

When heartbroken, finding the good in our experience can be a challenge. However, just as gratitude heals the actual tissue of our actual heart, gratitude can heal the metaphorical heart, as well.

When we find gratitude for a lesson learned, we begin to heal. When we find gratitude for the influence a lost love has had on our lives, we can heal from the loss.

When your child comes home from school with tears instead of smiles, listen to the pain, but focus also on what was wonderful. Perhaps not about the painful experience just yet – that will coe later, perhaps – but the good things that were found around the painful ones. Treat your child’s heartbreak with compassion, and offer them your gratitude for thier tender, loving heart.

Gratitude refocuses your path to the greater good.

Gratitude grows in the act of spreading, and it’s contagious, just like any state or mood is. When we see how much good there is in our experience, it becomes easy and pleasurable to create more good in the world. As your child grows into a grateful heart their gratitude will spill over as generosity of spirit, a compassionate eye toward the world, and a sense of discernment that will allow them to enact the attributes of a happy soul.


    Easy to understand and comprehensive explanation of stress: http://www.mtstcil.org/skills/stress-definition-1.html
    The science of stress: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Catecholamine
    Cortisol and stress, positive and negative: http://stress.about.com/od/stresshealth/a/cortisol.htm
    What is cortisol, and stress management: http://stress.about.com/od/stressmanagementglossary/g/Cortisol.htm
    Easy guide to stress that will help kids, teens, and parents learn both positive and negative, and what to do about stress when it becomes chronic: http://kidshealth.org/teen/your_mind/emotions/stress.html
    Women and stess, including PTSD: http://www.medic8.com/healthguide/articles/stress.html
    Gratitude> stress. (Gratitude cancels stress): http://www.realage.com/the-you-docs/you-being-beautiful/a-few-ways-to-appreciate-and-share-your-gifts
    Emotional contagion: if you smile you feel happy. If you smile, others smile back. And then THEY fell happy, too. Mood and Emotional Contagion: http://psychology.wikia.com/wiki/Emotional_contagion
    Hedonic adatation: http://www.voxeu.org/index.php?q=node/910
    Quitting smoking is contagious: http://www.medicalnewstoday.com/articles/108373.php
    “Are Your Friends Making You Fat?”, NY Times Sunday Magazine: http://www.nytimes.com/2009/09/13/magazine/13contagion-t.html
    Heart research, including the neurology of stress -or “the brain of the heart”: www.heartmath.org
    Gratitude and health, theory and scientific basis: www.acfnewsource.org/religion/gratitude_theory.html
    Physical, emotional, spiritual benefits of gratitude, positive psychology, economics and gratitude, gifting and gratitude, spirituality and health, emotional understanding of children, forgiveness, gratefulness – the heart of prayer – Harpham, Aafke Elizabeth Komter, Michael E. McCullough, Solomon Schimmel, Charles M. Shelton, S. J., Brother David Steindl-Rast, O.S.B.: http://www.templeton.org/humble_approach_initiative/Gratitude/

Author Bio:
Lasára Allen is an author, educator, advocate, and the creator of Gratitude Games. Her writing covers a range of topics including gratitude, parenting, relationships, bipolar disorder, fitness, yoga, health & holistic well-being, compassion, and spiritual practice. As an educator and advocate, Lasára speaks about living, parenting & working with bipolar disorder, gratitude as a spiritual practice & an opportunity for community & global involvement, grateful parenting & raising grateful children.

Over the years, Lasára has helped clients and students find balance in their lives, and alignment with personal and family-held values. She has taught, spoken, and coached internationally. She began designing Gratigories and other Gratitude Games in 2008. Lasára is a mom to two daughters, and wife to the love of her life. Find out more more at http://www.LasaraAllen.com, and http://www.TheGratitudePlace.com.

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