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Fishful Thinking: Cultivating Gratitude in Youth

By Karen Reivich

Editor's Note: This article is the first in an occasional series by Karen Reivich, PhD, creator of Fishful Thinking, a parent outreach program designed to promote optimism and resilience in children. NASP is partnering with Fishful Thinking to highlight strategies and resources that school psychologists can offer parents in their school communities.

The field of positive psychology has been interested in gratitude and documenting its benefits on well-being. Research has shown that people who experience gratitude have a variety of positive outcomes including more positive emotions such as joy, love, and happiness; fewer negative emotions such as bitterness, envy, and resentment; increased feelings of connectedness; improved relationships; and greater physical health (Emmons & McCullough, 2003; Emmons, 2007). Given the benefits of gratitude, researchers have begun to develop and validate interventions that promote gratitude in adults and youth. Although the empirical investigation of these interventions is relatively young, there is enough data to suggest techniques that build gratitude and these techniques have been used successfully in a school setting (Froh, Sefick, & Emmons, 2007; Reivich et al., 2003).

What Is Gratitude?

Gratitude has been described in a variety of ways, including as an emotion, an attitude, a stable trait, and a character strength (Emmons & McCullough, 2003; Peterson & Seligman, 2004). Dr. Robert Emmons, a leading researcher in the study of gratitude, describes two stages of gratitude. The first stage is acknowledging something positive in one's life whether it is the receipt of a material gift (such as an unexpected present) or an immaterial experience (such as watching a beautiful sunset or family member recovering from an illness). The second stage of gratitude is the understanding that the source of the positive gift or experience is outside oneself (Emmons, 2007). In its most simple description, gratitude can be described as thankfulness in response to receiving a gift.

Gratitude can also be viewed as character strength. The field of positive psychology has focused on the classification and empirical exploration of character strengths and their correlates and consequences. From the strength perspective, we would describe an individual as having the strength of gratitude if that individual habitually views life with appreciation, acknowledges what he has received from others, and expresses thanks easily and without external prompting (Peterson & Seligman, 2004). In other words, whereas some individuals express gratitude only occasionally and with prompting, an individual with the strength of gratitude can be said to have a grateful disposition, and this individual is inclined to notice what she has received and to express her appreciation for those gifts freely and comfortably.

The Benefits of Gratitude

Gratitude has clear benefits for the individual and relationships. Research has shown that people who keep a daily or weekly gratitude journal report fewer physical symptoms, greater optimism, greater life satisfaction, more positive emotions, higher levels of attention, and more exercise compared to people who recorded neutral life events or stressors (Emmons & Crumpler, 2000; Emmons & McCullough, 2003). Furthermore, grateful individuals are less likely to base their happiness on material possessions and are less likely to measure success by material gain. One could speculate that because gratitude turns one's mental eye toward what one has received, there is less comparison to others (e.g., "She has more/better than me.") and thus less of the constant striving for more. Instead, gratitude leads to a purposeful appreciation for what one already has received, which makes it more likely that the individual will feel contentment rather than a yearning for something new.

Gratitude has also been shown to relate to the ease with which individuals retrieve pleasant versus unpleasant experiences from memory. Research has shown that gratitude makes it easier for individuals to retrieve from memory positive experiences because when one feels grateful, the information about the positive event is more elaborate, vivid, and detailed and thus, easier to retrieve. This tendency for grateful people to remember more positive memories than negative memories is known as the positive recall bias and gratitude seems to be one mechanism through which this positive bias develops (Emmons, 2007).

Gratitude not only has benefits to the grateful individual but the benefits extend to others as well. For example, individuals who kept a gratitude journal were more likely to help someone and offer emotional support, and were described as more helpful by people in their social networks, compared to those who recorded complaints or hassles (Emmons & McCullough, 2003). Dr. John Gottman, one of the leading researchers on marital relationships, finds that thriving relationships have and maintain a high ratio of positive to negative emotion and that one way to develop this positive ratio is to consistently express gratitude to each other (Gottman, 1999).

In addition, a study of online interventions showed that individuals who kept a Three Good Things Journal in which they recorded three things that went well each day and their beliefs about what caused the positive event for 1 week reported significantly fewer symptoms of depression and significantly higher levels of happiness for 6 months (Seligman, Steen, Park, & Peterson, 2005). Participants in the three good things exercise began to show beneficial effects 1 month following posttest and these effects lasted through the 3- and 6-month assessments. Interestingly, although participants were instructed to do the three good things exercise for just 1 week, there was a significant effect for adherence to the exercise such that the individuals who continued to keep track of the good things that happened in their life showed the strongest long-term gains in happiness (Seligman et al.).

Research on gratitude in childhood and adolescence is in its infancy. Although some research has shown that gratitude is not consistently seen in youth until middle childhood, the study of cultivating gratitude in school-age children has demonstrated that gratitude can be induced through simple activities such as "counting one's blessings" and that gratitude was related to enhanced well-being and less negative emotions (Froh, Sefick, & Emmons, 2008). Other school-based research has shown that "transcendence strengths," which include the strength of gratitude, were robustly and consistently associated with higher well-being and lower depression symptoms in a sample of ninth grade students followed for 2 years. That is, adolescents who reported higher levels of temperance and other-directed strengths in ninth grade reported fewer depression symptoms, greater happiness, and greater life satisfaction in tenth grade compared to ninth graders with lower levels of gratitude and other related strengths (Gillham et al., 2009).

Obstacles to Gratitude

There are barriers to gratitude which warrant mention (for a thorough discussion on this topic see Emmons, 2007). With the knowledge of what interferes with gratitude, we are better prepared to find strategies to avoid or counteract these forces. First is the negativity bias. The negativity bias is the tendency for the mind to perceive incoming stimuli as negative. That is, we're more likely to see stimuli as a threat than we are as benevolent (Cacioppo, Ito, Larson, & Smith, 1998). Benevolence is necessary for gratitude. Threat blocks it. Second is pessimism. Pessimistic thinking is marked by the habit of seeing the negative, believing bad outcomes are more likely than good outcomes, and ruminating about the nature and causes of problems. Pessimistic thinking has been shown to predict depression and, by its very nature, interferes with the perceptions of positive experiences (Gillham & Reivich, 2004; Nolen-Hoeksema, 2000; Nolen-Hoeksema, 2004). A third barrier to gratitude is the perception of being a victim (Emmons, 2007). Emmons describes how the tendency to blame others makes the experience of gratitude— built on the perception that one has been helped by another—less likely. Further, the belief that one is a victim reinforces pessimism and cultivates feelings of anger and/or depression; all of which further diminish the likelihood of gratitude.

Gratitude Interventions

Given the benefits of gratitude as well as the barriers to it, it makes sense to ask the question: Can gratitude be developed and/or taught through interventions? Indeed, there are a growing number of empirically validated and scientifically supported interventions designed to cultivate gratitude in adults and youth (Seligman et al., 2005; Froh, Sefick, & Emmons, 2008; Froh, Kashdan, Ozimkowski, & Miller, 2009; Lyubomirksy, 2008).

Keeping a gratitude journal (also described as a blessings journal or the three good things journal) has been used with adults as well as youth. The individual is asked to record daily experiences for which she is grateful and to write a reflection about the entry (e.g., to record a causal explanation for each event; Seligman et al., 2005; Froh, Sefick, & Emmons, 2008; Reivich et al., 2003).

Another gratitude intervention is to write a gratitude letter and make a gratitude visit. Individuals are instructed to write a letter of gratitude to someone who has been especially kind to them but has not been properly thanked. The letters are detailed and describe the act as well as the effect the kind act had on the letter writer. After writing the letter, the writer visits the person and delivers the letter by hand (Seligman, Steen, Park, & Peterson, 2005; Froh, Kashdan, Ozimkowski, & Miller, 2009; Reivich et al., 2003).

Finally, as part of a broader school-based positive psychology curriculum, adolescents have been asked to complete a personal gratitude list in which the students complete sentence stems that are designed to help them reflect on people and experiences for which they are grateful (e.g., "Someone who helped me get through a difficult time is _______", "Someone who helped me learn something important about myself is _______", "Someone with whom I can discuss the things that matter most to me is _______."). In this same curriculum, students participated in an activity designed to facilitate the letting go of a grudge against a friend or family member by actively recalling and writing about what they are grateful to the person for or what in the relationship they are grateful for (Reivich et al., 2003).

In addition to these interventions, there are a variety of school-appropriate activities for developing, reinforcing, and valuing gratitude such as creating a classroom gratitude journal and dedicating time each week to read the gratitude journal with the class, dedicating a bulletin board for gratitude art in which students draw pictures of things for which they are grateful, creating a For This I am Grateful poster on which students make a collage of words, photos, quotations, etc. that reflect things for which they are grateful. For other ways to cultivate gratitude in schools, refer to the Gratitude Works Program, part of the National Association of School Psychologists' effort to promote students' resilience, optimism, and academic success by helping them to see the possibilities in themselves and others. Resources for the program build on the work of Jeffrey Froh, PsyD, Hofstra University, and are available at http://www.nasponline.org/communications/spawareness/2009_gratitudeworks.aspx.

Fishful Thinking and Gratitude

The Pepperidge Farm Fishful Thinking initiative targets five key life skills for youth: Optimism, Resilience, Goal Setting, Empowerment (self-efficacy), and Emotional Awareness. The activities, articles, and newsletters on the website (www.fishfulthinking.com) are informed by the field of positive psychology and have been developed to be used by parents and teachers. Although gratitude is not one of the five skills of Fishful Thinking, cultivating gratitude falls under at least four of the five key factors. For example, building the strength of gratitude will help a student develop a positive view of the world and others, which will reinforce the skill of optimism. Expressing gratitude to others will strengthen social bonds and social support, which are critical for the skill of resilience. Reflecting on what it feels like to be grateful—the thoughts, feelings, and actions that are associated with that emotion—builds emotional awareness. In addition, helping students who have the strength of gratitude to identify ways to use that strength to meet challenges, strengthen relationships, and increase engagement in the school will bolster empowerment (self-efficacy).

Some of the activities included in the Fishful Thinking program target gratitude directly. For example, the For This I am Grateful poster and the Feeling Collage are designed to enhance a child's focus on the people and things for which he is grateful and to explore the emotion of gratitude. These activities are available at http:// www.fishfulthinking.com/Emotional-Awareness/Activities. Many others activities in the program cultivate gratitude by helping students to focus on the positive events in their lives (Treasures Box), to savor the positive (Savoring Food, Savoring Party), to notice beauty in the world (Beauty Detours, Nature Sense Walk, Happiness Scavenger Hunt), and to identify what is meaningful to them (Finding Meaning). These activities are all available at http://www.fishfulthinking.com/Optimism/Activities. Though the materials are written for parents, many can be adapted for teachers to conduct with their class.


Cacioppo, J. T., Ito, T. A., Larsen, J. T., & Smith, N. K. (1998). Negative information weighs more heavily on the brain: The negativity bias in evaluative categorizations. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 75(4), 887–900.

Emmons, R. A. (2007). Thanks! How the new science of gratitude can make you happier. New York: Houghton Mifflin Harcourt.

Emmons, R. A., & Crumpler, C. A. (2000). Gratitude as a human strength: Appraising the evidence. Journal of Social & Clinical Psychology, 19(1), 56–69.

Emmons, R. A., & McCullough, M. E. (2003). Counting blessings versus burdens: An experimental investigation of gratitude and subjective well-being in daily life. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 84(2), 377–389.

Froh, J. J., Kashdan, T. B., Ozimkowski, K. M., & Miller, N. (2009). Who benefits the most from a gratitude intervention in children and adolescents? Examining positive affect as a moderator. The Journal of Positive Psychology, 4, 408–422.

Froh, J. J., Sefick, W. J., & Emmons, R. A. (2008). Counting blessings in early adolescents: An experimental study of gratitude and subjective well-being. Journal of School Psychology, 46(2), 213–233.

Gillham, J., Adams-Deutsch, Z., Werner, J., Reivich, K., Coulter-Heindl, V., Linkins, M., et al. (2009). Character strengths predict subjective well-being during adolescence. Manuscript submitted for publication.

Gillham, J., & Reivich, K. (2004). Cultivating optimism in childhood and adolescence. Annals of the American Academy of Political and Social Science, 591, 146–163.

Gottman, J. M. (1999). The marriage clinic: A scientifically based marital therapy. New York: W. W. Norton & Co.

Lyubomirsky, S. (2008). The how of happiness: A scientific approach to getting the life you want. New York: Penguin Press.

Nolen-Hoeksema, S. (2000). The role of rumination in depressive disorders and mixed anxiety/depressive symptoms. Journal of Abnormal Psychology, 109(3), 504–511.

Nolen-Hoeksema, S. (2004). Women who think too much: How to break free of overthinking and reclaim your life. New York: Henry Holt and Co.

Peterson, C., & Seligman, M. (2004). Character strengths and virtues: A handbook and classification. New York: Oxford University Press.

Reivich, K., Seligman, S., Gillham, J., Linkins, M., Peterson, C., Duckworth, A., et al. (2003). Positive psychology program for high school students: Lessons for the pleasant life, the good life, and the meaningful life. Unpublished manuscript.

Seligman, M., Steen, T. A., Park, N., & Peterson, C. (2005). Positive psychology progress: Empirical validation of interventions. American Psychologist, 60(5), 410–421.

Karen Reivich, PhD, is the codirector of the Penn Resiliency Project, a research associate in the Positive Psychology Center at the University of Pennsylvania, and a spokesman for the Fishful Thinking program.

Linking Gratitude Strategies to School Priorities

School psychologists have the exciting opportunity to offer relatively simple yet potent techniques to promote gratitude, help improve school climate, develop student's personal assets, and support academic achievement. The good news is that cultivating gratitude does not require creating a whole new program and can be integrated into existing priorities within your school. The following suggestions are provided by Terry Molony, PsyD, NCSP, Positive Psychology Interest Group Chair and a school psychologist in Cherry Hill, NJ, and Maureen Henwood, a student at Philadelphia College of Osteopathic Medicine who is completing her internship in Cherry Hill.

  • Gratitude and Language Arts. Many schools have a standard related to learning letter writing. Using gratitude as the content of the letter will likely provide an authentic task for students. Cognitive psychology tells us that evoking emotions can offer a meaningful learning experience and allow for deeper connections among learning goals.
  • Gratitude and Math. Most districts have a data analysis standard across grade levels. Suggest teachers use gratitude as the content for the data analysis unit. Students can collect data about how many times they hear people say "thank you" or other expressions of gratitude and present the information in graphs and other arrays. The project could be expanded to a whole school drive to determine which grade levels demonstrate the most gratitude.
  • Gratitude as a Universal Intervention in PBS. Cultivating gratitude is a universal intervention that fits into a PBS framework. Whether you have an established PBS program or are starting out, consider making gratitude one of the universal expectations. Develop a lesson for what gratitude looks like, teach it to the students and then reinforce it when you see it with a coupon or ticket. Have a drawing with all the tickets at the end of the week and give a prize to the student(s) whose ticket is drawn. A popular prize for elementary age students is 15 minutes of extra recess with two friends. That prize builds social and physical skills, too!
  • Check In/Check Out and Mentoring Procedures. When the student meets with the staff member, they could discuss one thing he or she is grateful for during the day. This could reinforce the school-wide supports as well as foster connection between the student and mentor that can also reinforce a positive school climate.
  • School Climate and Character Education. Gratitude is a prosocial behavior that can increase a sense of helpfulness (both the benefactor and the beneficiary feel positive and often report the desire to do more good deeds), which reinforces a positive school climate. Also, when students and staff relate in a helpful and caring manner, the sense of community is enhanced. Gratitude can increase intra- and interpersonal awareness because it is often conceptualized as an empathetic emotion that necessitates perspective-taking in recognizing that someone did something he or she was not required to do. Much of the character education and SEL literature discusses how academic goals are facilitated with this sense of community and increased emotional awareness.
  • Staff Activities. November is the perfect month to do a gratitude-related activity with faculty and staff, as part of an inservice or staff meeting. This could include a brief overview on the characteristics of genuine gratitude, why differentiating gratitude and happiness is important, and how to model and reinforce gratitude in students. Also consider having staff make Gratitude Portfolios, either alone or in small groups. This activity can reinforce a sense of collegiality and positive attitudes during stressful times.