With teenage mental health being a growing problem around the world, I pose the question: What if the simple task of gratitude really could change lives, and most teens just don’t know it? After surveying over 100 participants, I learned that only 39% of youth in my community practice gratitude every day. Yet 76% shared that they struggle with their mental health. This leaves the remaining 61% missing out on the immense value that gratitude could bring to their lives. So how do we make gratitude attractive to teens? According to my research, the absence of practicing gratitude is rooted in three obstacles: 1. A lack of understanding the benefits. 2. A lack of knowledge of practices. 3. A lack of habit.
The neuroscience of gratitude needs to become common knowledge. Gratitude has significant, scientifically proven benefits. Most teens know the basics: ‘gratitude = good’. For the majority of teens, there’s not much incentive to delve deeper into why it’s good, or add something new to their busy lives. But what if understanding the ‘why’ had the power to motivate? Over half of participants felt that learning the benefits of gratitude would motivate them to embrace new practices.
The optimal benefits don’t come from just being grateful, but from expressing gratitude. How do we do this? Gratitude practices come in many forms and can be individualized for every lifestyle. 63% of participants noted that they “don’t know ways to practice gratitude.” A common misconception is that in order to notice benefits, one must make massive changes to their everyday life. However, the reality of gratitude can be simple and efficient. Some practices can take 5 minutes, others can take an hour if you want it to. You can express gratitude with a pen and paper, your phone, or your voice. You can be anywhere from the top of a mountain to your bed. It all depends on you.
Where do I begin? Click the titles below for simple practices:
TIME: 5-10 min, 1-3 times per week.
Write down 5 things that went well for you today, and explain why. It’s important to be specific. For instance, don’t write that you’re grateful to have food or relationships in general. Instead, try to focus on the flavours or significance of that food, or a specific conversation that enhanced your mood.
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TIME: 20 min, daily
Walk by yourself and take note of the positive things around you. Go through your senses: What do you see? Hear? Smell? Feel? “As you notice each of these positive things, acknowledge each one in your mind—don’t just let them slip past you. Pause for a moment as you hear or see each thing and make sure it registers with your conscious awareness, really take it in. Try to identify what it is about that thing that makes it pleasurable to you.”
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TIME: 10-30 min.
Think of someone you feel grateful to have in your life. Then, express your gratitude to them. Write what’s special about them and how something they’ve done/ they do makes you feel happy. How do they positively impact your life? Then send it to them.
Try to meet or call them and read your letter to them. If this doesn’t work send it in a text or mail it to them physically.
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TIME: 5-10 min.
Choose an item that you see regularly (a bracelet, a tree in your garden, key chain), or a regular daily event (morning coffee, brushing your teeth). Whatever it is, ensure that it’s something that you see/do often. Identify it as your gratitude moment. Every time you see your item, or brush your teeth, think mindfully about specific things you’re grateful for and why. Aim for 3-5.
TIME: 5-10 min, 1-7 times a week.
If you’re struggling to get specific about gratitude, try responding to prompts. You can find a multitude of prompts online, here are some examples:
– What touched me today?
– Who or what inspired me today?
– What made me smile today?
– What’s the best thing that happened today?
– I’m grateful for 3 things I hear:
– I’m grateful for 3 things I see:
– I’m grateful for 3 things I smell:
– I’m grateful for 3 things I touch/feel:
– I’m grateful for these 3 things I taste:
– I’m grateful for these 3 blue things:
– I’m grateful for these 3 animals/birds:
– I’m grateful for these 3 friends:
– I’m grateful for these 3 teachers:
– I’m grateful for these 3 family members:
– I’m grateful for these 3 things in my home:
TIME: 10 min
While normal meditation focuses on your breathing and a clear mind, gratitude meditation focuses on visualizing what you’re grateful for. Listening to a gratitude meditation audio can really help!
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Starting is easy, commitment is hard. In order to feel the optimal benefits of gratitude it must become habit. Like any practice in our lives, the regularity of a schedule can work wonders. In terms of practicing gratitude, consistency is crucial. Roughly half of participants in the survey agreed that having a scheduled time for gratitude each day would make practices more appealing. Though it may seem obvious, this part is often overlooked. Thus, many people try practicing gratitude, and after a week or so it’s no longer a priority and we’re right back where we started. Now you know why gratitude is so important and how to express it, make it a habit and let it work it’s magic!
How I Tried to Make Gratitude Attractive
I recognized that the students in my high school are busy, and not very likely to partake in gratitude practices on their own. So I felt that turning gratitude into a connective and lighthearted activity would not only promote gratitude but also build community. Given COVID-19, there were some limitations I needed to work around, but on the whole I found this activity to be quite successful. Firstly, my school has designated areas for each grade to reduce multi-cohort contacts. Unfortunately this meant that the “I’m Grateful For” board was only available in the designated Grade 11 area. Secondly, students at my school are required to be outdoors during breaks. Thus, the gratitude board could only be accessed while travelling between classes. In essence, I wanted to make this exercise as interactive, easy, and connective as possible. For maximum participation, the display needed to be captivating and bold (color really helped achieve this). Despite the restrictive scenario, the grade 11s at my school engaged with the board quite well. The picture below was taken two days after the “I’m Grateful For” board was posted.
In all honesty, a gratitude board was a wonderful addition to my school. Aside from its initial purpose, the board provided an opportunity for connection, built a sense of community, and developed a fun and lively ambiance. I plan to continue with this project and make a few alterations:
- To promote a deeper understanding of gratitude, I will continue to display new ‘tidbits’ of information each week. As seen in the image, one side will share a benefit and the other side will share a way to practice expressing gratitude posed as a “challenge”. I plan to get more specific with time.
- One issue that arose was students often struggling to think of what to write. This resulted in less participants being mindfully grateful, and caused a lot of ‘joke’ responses. To combat this, I will provide prompts to guide student responses. Ex: “Name someone you’re grateful for and why.” or “What’s the best thing that happened to you today.”
- That being said, I think my intention moving forward will shift to be more community and connection based. Gratitude will still be the focus of the board, but ultimately it’s goal will be to strengthen connectivity in a time where the pandemic stifles the organic connection of high school.
- I hope to post a new prompt on a monthly or even bi-weekly basis. With each new prompt, I will add new ‘info tidbits’.
- Finally, I will find a more central area in my school that allows multiple grades and teachers to participate.
Helping teens understand why, how, and when they can practice gratitude may ignite the popularity of gratitude amongst youth, and hopefully teenage mental health will reap the benefits.