I consider this philosophy and wonder, “Then why is it so easy to take people for granted, especially those we love?” The answer is actually pretty simple and it isn’t because we are cold-hearted and mean. It is primarily because as humans, we habituate—we decrease or cease our response to stimuli (people, things, situations) after repeated presentation. In other words with regard to close relationships, we get used to people we are around regularly and thus begin taking them for granted. But, an inclination to habituate does not mean all hope is lost. Exercises of gratitude within our families and personal relationships can make a world of difference.
Survey Findings on Gratitude within Family & Close Relationships
The John Templeton Foundation’s Gratitude Survey of over 2000 Americans (Kaplan, 2012) indicated that while 90% of people say they are grateful for their immediate family, just 49% actually express daily gratitude to their spouse or partner, 37% to their children, 20% to their parents, and 15% to their close friends. When considering spiritual relationships, 44% of people indicated that they view gratitude as an expression of love for God or a higher power.
What Makes People Feel Grateful to their Spouses/Partners?
For women, the number one action that makes them feel grateful is when their spouse/partner listens to their problems (79%). The second most important thing that makes women feel grateful is when their spouse/partner expresses love and affection (78%). Similarly, men most appreciate when their spouse/partner expresses love and affection (77%), followed by having a spouse who listens to their problems (75%).
What Makes Parents Feel Grateful to their Children?
Parents indicated they were most likely to express gratitude to their child for getting good grades (76%), being kind to a sibling (71%), or calling a grandparent or elderly relative (69%).
Research on Gratitude within Family & Close Relationships
Gratitude in Couples
Gordon, Arnette, & Smith (2011) conducted a study of 57 American, heterosexual married couples. Each day for 14 days, couples completed of a series of questionnaires measuring marital satisfaction and state gratitude. Results indicated that gratitude was not only correlated with each individual’s own relationship satisfaction, but it predicted spouse’s marital happiness as well. Essentially, individuals reporting higher levels of gratitude had spouses who were happier with their marriage.
A study conducted by Algoe, Gable, & Maisel (2010) of 67 American, heterosexual cohabitating couples, found that a partner’s thoughtful gesture on one day enhanced feelings of gratitude and indebtedness, as well as increased feelings of relationship quality. Gratitude felt on the previous day also correlated with women’s feelings of enhanced satisfaction with the relationship and men’s feelings of enhanced connection with their partner and satisfaction with the relationship. Furthermore, men and women with grateful partners felt greater connection with their partner and more satisfaction with their romantic relationship than they had the previous day.
Gratitude in Parents, Children, & Adolescents
Hoy, Suldo, & Raffaele Mendez (2013) studied levels of gratitude, life satisfaction, and hope of parents (137 mothers and 109 fathers) and 148 children in the U.S. They found a signiﬁcant relationship between mother and child gratitude, as well as child life satisfaction and both mothers’ and fathers’ life satisfaction. Furthermore, higher parent life satisfaction was associated with higher child hope.
Froh, Kashdan, Ozimkowski, & Miller (2009) studied gratitude in 89 American children and adolescents. Participants at a parochial school were randomly assigned to a gratitude or a control condition. Those in the gratitude condition wrote a letter to someone they were grateful for, read the letter to the person, and shared their experience with others. An example letter from a teenager to her mother read, “I would like to take this time to thank you for all that you do on a daily basis and have been doing my whole life…. I am so thankful that I get to drive in with you [to school] everyday and … for all the work you do for our church…. I thank you for being there whenever I need you. I thank you that when the world is against me that you stand up for me and you are my voice when I can’t speak for myself. I thank you for caring about my life and wanting to be involved … for the words of encouragement and hugs of love that get me through every storm. I thank you for sitting through countless games in the cold and rain and still having the energy to make dinner and all the things you do. I thank you for raising me in a Christian home where I have learned who God was and how to serve him…. I am so blessed to have you as my mommy and I have no idea what I would have done without you.” Results showed that children and adolescents in the gratitude condition who were low in positive affect reported greater gratitude and positive affect after the gratitude intervention and greater positive affect two months later than youth in the control condition.
Research conducted by Froh, Sefick, & Emmons (2008) randomly assigned 221 American early adolescents in 6th and 7th grade to either a gratitude, hassles, or control condition for two weeks and evaluated the impact of the intervention on psychological, physical, and social well-being. Adolescents in gratitude condition were asked to count their blessings, listing up to five things they were grateful for each day for 14 consecutive days. Results showed that counting blessings was correlated with increases in gratitude, optimism, life satisfaction, and decreased negative affect. The most significant finding was that gratitude positively impacts adolescents’ satisfaction with their school experience.
Froh, Emmons, Card, Bono, & Wilson (2011) studied 1,035 American high school students, grades 9th through 12th, and found that adolescents who were grateful achieved higher GPAs, were more socially integrated, had greater life satisfaction, and were less envious and less depressed than adolescents with lower levels of gratitude.
Gratitude in Close Friendships
A study by Bello, Brandau-Brown, Zhang, & Ragsdale (2010) examined 79 American college students’ and 121 Chinese college students’ methods for expressing appreciation in either a close friendship or romantic relationship. Results showed that American participants relied relatively evenly on verbal and nonverbal gratitude expressions, while Chinese participants favored nonverbal gratitude expressions over verbal ones.
What Do Those Already Practicing Gratitude within Their Families Have to Say?
Kelly Schaefer, a multi-tasking mother of four and Owner of Task Complete, a personal errand and concierge service, shared with me a host of ways that she and her family practice gratitude at home. She shared, “Part of our gratitude rituals as a family are during dinner time. We have a ritual we call ‘round table’ in which we go around the table and talk about our day. When we first started this when the kids were younger, my youngest son always seemed to focus on all the ‘bad things’ that happened at school. I gently restructured our round table by asking questions like, ‘What’s one great thing that happened in school today,’ ‘Who did something really nice for you today that made you feel special,’ and ‘What did you do today to fill someone else’s bucket?’” Kelly mentioned that she has been keeping her own Gratitude Journal for a couple of years and wanted to teach her children to do the same. She gave each of her children a book to write their daily gratitudes in. She told me, “Sometimes they are grateful for getting something, but most often they are grateful for time with family, Mommy making them a favorite meal, getting to play a board game, or even how the cat lays across their lap on lazy Saturday mornings.” Kelly mentioned that another thing that she and her husband try to teach their children is the importance of showing gratitude through giving. As a family, they donate to food pantries, coat collections, back to school collections, toy drives, amongst others. She shared, “They often say to me ‘Mom, we give to everything!’ And, I kindly tell them, ‘As long as we have something to give, we can see all the abundance we have in our lives that we can share with others who may not be as fortunate. And, by us doing so, someday that person who received will likely give as well.’ They appreciate all that they have and will gladly let go of old toys now so that ‘other kids can love our old toys longer.’” As parents, Kelly and her husband also teach their children that even through negative situations, they can dig deeper to find something in the lesson to be grateful for.
Much like Kelly Schaefer, Stacy Rowan, co-founder and coach at Custom Built Life, and Star Staubach, energy transformation strategist and motivational speaker, utilize family dinners as an opportunity to express gratitude as a family unit. Stacy shared with me, “When my daughters were younger, each family member would share the best part of their day when we all gathered around the table for dinner. Having a witness to your gratitude as you speak it aloud is a great way to honor the good in your life.” Star told me, “In our home, we have a gratitude practice at the dinner table, sharing the part of our day that we are most grateful for. In that moment, we’re all listening, sharing, and communicating. The mood lightens the minute we start the conversation. We started this when my daughter was 18 months old, and now at three-and-a-half, she won’t let us sit for longer than a minute without prompting us, ‘Momma, we hav-a do favrit pawt of da day.’”
Chris Attwood, author and expert in the field of human consciousness, shared how he and his family express gratitude. He mentioned, “My wife, Doris, and I have wanted our children to be conscious about what they create in their lives. So, every day on the way to school we play the ‘Gratitude Game.’ We have a fun competition to see who can find the most things to be grateful for, beginning with “Thank you, God for . . .” Of course, we each have to find new things to be grateful for so we don’t repeat the same things every day. When we get to school, we ask our seven-year-old daughter, Sophie, “What are you going to create today” and she sets three intentions for her day. Then at the end of the day, we ask her “What did you create today” and she gets five kisses for each intention that came true, then we sing our Gratitude Song.”
Practicing gratitude is also a transformational factor in positively juggling the many responsibilities that family, work, and all of the other roles most of us manage each day. My good friend, Denise Ruiz-Cabrera, a perpetual positive thinker, mother of two, as well as a produced and published playwright and children’s play author, who currently works for a big four accounting firm, has a daily ritual of practicing gratitude that has helped her to manage the many roles she juggles. Each morning, Denise makes sure to kiss her children “Good Morning,” have a conversation about how good they slept and what they dreamt about, and plan for a day filled with kindness and gratitude. Denise shared with me, “I start my day by reciting a ‘Parents Prayer’ and looking at my ‘Confident Woman’ devotional, a quick prayer guide for busy women. For me, the greatest and most rewarding role I will ever have is that of Mother. To have ever been blessed with such a gift is my greatest reminder of how thankful I need to be, for I’ve received a blessing beyond compare. This is the epicenter for all of my gratitude. When I am charged with an exceptionally challenging parenting task or conversation, I reiterate this blessing. When I choose the proper words to discipline positively, I am reminded. When I rush home from a full day of work to be sure I prepare a home cooked meal, I am reminded. When I give up watching a favorite television show to ensure my children have been to soccer and swim and then rush home to stuff Valentine’s Day bags with gifts for their classmates, I am reminded. When I hear a sweet voice thanking me for building the best sleeping fort and lighting the ceiling just right for bedtime, I understand why I need to stay reminded.” Denise’s advice for maintaining gratitude at home during our busy lives is to be grateful that each day is a new beginning, concern ourselves only with what we can actually control, learn to bury woes and negativity in humor since laughter is a natural de-stressor, and to “Sing out loud daily. I sang ‘Let It Go’ with my daughter last night at the top of our lungs and it felt TERRIFIC!”
Finally, with a five-and-a-half year old, family gratitude practices are immensely important to me, as I want my son, Joshua, to live gratefully. Starting just after his fifth birthday, we began a bedtime practice of talking about three things we are grateful for that day—called “Our Thankfuls” by Josh. When we first began, Josh has trouble coming up with more than one thing. Within a month, he was rattling off sometimes 15 or more things he was thankful for that day. We also focus on the importance of kindness by reading Bucket Filler Books as our final part of our bedtime routine. We also wanted Josh to understand the importance of showing gratitude for all you have by giving to those who may not have some of those things. While it is challenging to find volunteer opportunities that children Josh’s age can engage in, one such thing is volunteering to do sorting and shelving at our local food pantry. This is something that Josh and I do together one night per month, and it is one of Josh’s favorite things to do. If I wake him up in the morning and tell him we are going to the food pantry that night, he will yell, “Yea!” and jump right up. Before our first time volunteering, we showed Josh the documentary, American Winter. It is a film that chronicles the impact of the recession on several formerly middle-class families, most of whom lost their jobs and/or homes, and utilized the services of their local food pantries. While it is a heavy film for a child Josh’s age, it helped Josh to understand why we are volunteering at the pantry. When my dad asked him about it, Josh said, “We watched this movie about families and kids who didn’t have jobs, houses, and food, and they had to go to the food pantry. So me and mommy go there so we can give people food if they don’t have any.” My hope is that volunteering will be an expression of gratitude that he keeps up throughout his lifetime. I also feel it’s important to both model and teach being grateful to my son. I make sure to thank him for cleaning up his toys, taking his time to do his homework thoughtfully and carefully, being kind to his teachers and friends, and so forth. I also thank Sales Associates in stores, Servers in restaurants, and anyone who provides us with a service or kindness when we are out and about, so he sees saying thank you to others as a normal response. Additionally, when someone is kind to him or gives him something, I ask him, “What do you say?” He knows the answer and almost always says “Thank You” before I even ask.
With my parents and my husband, aside from being more conscious of saying “thank You” consistently when I feel grateful, I still have some work to do. However, a couple of years ago, I handwrote and mailed a Gratitude Letter to my parents in Florida and talked with them about it over the phone. It was a positively emotional experience for me, and I believe for them as well. But, I think I need to do things like this more often. My husband is next ;-)
Bringing it All Together: 7 Exercises to Practice Gratitude within Your Family & Close Relationships
1. Role Model an Attitude of Gratitude for Kids & Teens (Froh & Bono, 2014): Parents are children’s first and most impactful teachers. The things that we say and do form the foundation for how our children talk and behave. We role model gratitude by thanking our children for their efforts and actions. While survey results indicate that parents tend to thank their children most readily for successful performance (i.e., good grades) (Kaplan, 2012), it is even more critical that we pay attention to the process, thanking our children for their hard work and effort in working towards a goal, even when it is not completed with the desired results. This lets kids/teens know that the process of trying is most important, versus sending the message that it is only the positive result that counts. Another way we role model gratitude is by spending quality time with our children, spouses/partners, family, and friends, as well as through expressions of love and affection (a touch, a kiss, a hug). We also model gratitude by saying thank you to those we encounter each day, be it our spouses/partners, other family members, neighbors, or service providers (sales associates, restaurant servers, police, postal workers, gas station attendants, etc.). We also serve as role models by keeping gratitude journals, reciting the things we are grateful for each day, writing thank you letters/notes, and giving our time and resources to others. This lets kids know that everyone we encounter deserves recognition and care.
2. Encourage Kids to Say “Thank You” & Show Gratitude through Their Actions (Froh & Bono, 2014): Until your child establishes a habit of expressing gratitude, encourage/remind him/her to say “Thank You” to all those who provide them with even the most basic services and kindnesses. Furthermore, parents can encourage kids and teens to express gratitude through their actions by: (1) Writing a Gratitude Letter or Thank You Note to a family member, teacher, doctor, police, neighbor, friend, or other community member who showed them kindness, (2) Giving to Charities or Volunteering Their Time—whether it’s donating their old toys or clothes, helping a friend with a task they are struggling with, helping out around the house, or volunteering a service in the community (food pantry, soup kitchen, tutoring, environmental clean-up, etc.), and (3) Keeping a Gratitude Journal or Reciting Daily Gratitudes—kids can be encouraged to list the things they are grateful for each day in a journal, or a family routine can be established in the morning, at dinnertime, or at bedtime where family members talk about what they are grateful for that day.
3. Engage in Gratitude Discussions with Kids & Teens (Froh & Bono, 2014): Talk with kids about the benefits they receive from others, whether it is for a service, material gift, or another form of kindness. A parent can help children understand and appreciate: (1) that the giver noticed they had a need and acted upon it, (2) that the giver may have incurred a cost or sacrifice to provide the service or gift, and (3) the personal meaning and value of the service or gift they received.
4. Teach Kids & Teens to Develop a Growth Mindset during Difficult Times (Carter, 2010, November): When disappointments happen and challenges arise, ask your kids/teens, “What did you learn from this tough experience?” and “What good came out of this, despite the challenge?” This helps kids and teens see that there may be critical wisdom to be grateful for, even during hard times.
5. Go Out of Your Way to Help Your Spouse/Partner When They Need Support: In our busy lives, it can be easy to get caught up in ourselves and everything we have on our own plates. When your spouse/partner wants to talk about a problem they are having, an accomplishment they are proud of, or something they are excited about/interested in, set aside your own tasks and actively listen. If your spouse/partner is juggling a lot, ask what you can do to help them out and make things easier for them. Or, simply surprise your partner by doing something kind that supports their needs.
6. Recognize & Thank Your Spouse/Partner, Both Publically & Privately: When your spouse/partner has done something kind, thank them for doing so, even if you feel it is simply part of their “relational duties.” When you are out amongst others, don’t forget to acknowledge what a great partner they are and how they positively contribute to your life. If your spouse/partner has accomplished a goal, tell them how proud you are of how hard they have worked to achieve it. When you are out amongst friends and family, share their good news and hard work. Remember the importance of expressing your love and affection.
7. Celebrate Your Gratitudes as a Couple/Family During Tough Times: Sometimes couples encounter life challenges together, like the loss of a job, an illness, a death, etc. These losses can create stress and strain in family life, making it difficult to remember all you still have together. Remind one another of what you still have and how you will get through the challenge together as a family unit.
Family gratitude practices lay the foundation for satisfaction and success in all other arenas outside the home, including non-familial close relationships. The more we exercise gratitude within our homes, the more likely we are to have children that express kindness and gratitude in their schools and communities, and later in their lives as adults. Gratitude is first role modeled through how parents treat one another, their children, other family members, friends, and all others they encounter. Then, it is taught through instruction about direct ways kids can show kindness and appreciation to others. I thank my mom and dad for being my first role models and teachers of gratitude and kindness, and I thank you my husband and son for being the truly good souls they are in helping to enable me to maintain gratitude within our family. I also thank my wonderful interview subjects for their gratitude wisdom.
Algoe, S.B., Gable, S.L., & Maisel, N.C. (2010). It’s the little things: Everyday gratitude as a booster shot for romantic relationships. Personal Relationships, 17, 217-233.
Bello, R.S., Brandau-Brown, F.E., Zhang, S., & Ragsdale, J.D. (2010). Verbal and nonverbal methods for expressing appreciation in friendships and romantic relationships: A cross-cultural comparison. International Journal of Intercultural Relations, 34(3), 294-302.
Carter, C. (2010, November 18). Teenagers: Are Yours More Entitled Than Grateful? Retrieved from: http://greatergood.berkeley.edu/raising_happiness/post/teenagers_are_yours_more_entitled_than_grateful
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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, 213-233.
Gordon, C.L., Arnette, R.A.M., & Smith, R.E. (2011). Have you thanked your spouse today?: Felt and expressed gratitude among married couples. Personality and Individual Differences, 50, 339-343.
Hoy, B., Suldo, S. M., & Raffaele Mendez, L. (2013). Links between parents’ and children’s levels of gratitude, life satisfaction, and hope. Journal of Happiness Studies, 14 (4), 1343-1361.
Kaplan, J. (2012). Gratitude Survey. John Templeton Foundation. Retrieved from: http://greatergood.berkeley.edu/article/item/how_grateful_are_americans.