What’s the anatomy of gratitude?

Andrea Hussong is director of the Center for Developmental Science at UNC-Chapel Hill and a researcher involved in the Raising Grateful Children project. Here she explains what scientists know about gratitude and how people can foster the emotion in themselves and their kids. Questions and answers have been edited.

Q. What kind of physical and mental benefits come from giving thanks?

A. Gratitude is about giving thanks, but also about feeling appreciation and recognizing what we have received. Adults who practice gratitude sleep better, have stronger immune systems, lower blood pressure, reduced anxiety and depression, and more satisfied relationships.

Q. Why does it seem some people are more grateful than others? How much of it is nature and how much of it is nurture?

A. Not surprisingly, this is an area of active study. Research shows that people who practice gratitude begin to report greater gratitude over time, indicating that what we do in our lives can impact the extent to which we feel and act grateful. We also know that gratitude, along with other emotions like compassion, has roots in biology. Researchers are just beginning to investigate the way in which different aspects of our biology, such as variations in our genes or brain functioning, could influence gratitude.

Q. What do we know about gratitude in children?

A. We know much less about gratitude in children than we do about gratitude in adults. What we do know focuses mostly on social situations that lead to children saying thank you, and we also know that just because they say it doesn’t mean they mean it. We think that “meaning it” is an important part of why gratitude is beneficial. That is because gratitude involves not just being aware of receiving something and having positive feelings about what is received, but also thinking about the giver’s good intentions and showing appreciation through action. We expect to see this more complex view of gratitude in teenagers and adults, but it can take time to develop in children.

Q. How do you study gratitude? What do you hope to find about the role that parents can play in fostering that attribute in their progeny?

A. In the Raising Grateful Children project, my collaborators at UNC, Duke and N.C. State and I invited 100 parents and their first-, second- and third-grade children into our labs to complete surveys, interviews and tasks. We are currently analyzing these data, but one initial finding is that parents vary widely in how they define gratitude in children. We suspect that some parents may be frustrated in their attempts to foster gratitude in their children because their goals are very broad – defining success beyond simply having more thankful children to include issues of entitlement, social justice and other behaviors. We know that focusing our efforts on a few parenting goals at a time can be more successful than tackling many at once. We are also interested in how parents talk with children about gratitude and entitlement, how they model gratitude for their children and how they select activities to cultivate gratitude in their children. We plan to follow these families to learn how parents’ attempts to foster gratitude in their children impact the health and well-being of these children as they enter adolescence.