What are you grateful for today? This is the question I try to ask my three children before I tuck them into bed at night.
When I was younger, my mother established the same bedtime routine. Some nights I was more grateful than others, but the question always challenged me to think deeply about the positive aspects of my life. As the youngest of five children in a "non-privileged" immigrant family, everything I owned was a hand-me-down, so I learned to be grateful for non-material other things: a loving family, sincere friendships, inspiring siblings, helpful mentors and connection to my community. The powerful dialogue my mother and I generated about gratitude is among the keys to happiness and self-motivation. These discussions taught me how to count my blessings rather than add up my problems.
Continuing with this bedtime tradition, my hope is to inspire my kids' attitude for gratitude. I hope to teach my children that gratitude is more than just saying "please" and "thank you." Gratitude involves personal values, beliefs and the expression of appreciation toward others and the world we live in. Unfortunately many of today's children do not grow up in environment that fosters important lessons about gratitude.
According to a national survey on gratitude commissioned by the John Templeton Foundation, gratitude levels are declining. A whopping 60 per cent of people are less likely to express gratitude than 100 years ago. Sadly, the national survey also indicates that 18- to 24-year-olds were less likely to express gratitude than any other age group and when they did display signs of appreciation, it was usually for self-serving reasons.
The Cisco Connected World Technology Report found one-third of college students were more grateful for their mobile devices than their access to food, shelter, or safety. When youth find value for their iPhones, MacBook Pros and GPS systems more than the necessities for survival, we can understand how the term "Generation Entitled" came to be.
Why are children becoming more entitled and less grateful? Perhaps, it's because children are growing up without really knowing what gratitude is. In the national survey, 8-10 per cent of respondents indicated that no one has ever taught them the meaning of gratitude. Research shows that a child's gratitude has its roots in a nurturing family environment. Given this, a good question for parents is: Is gratitude an attitude you are promoting for your child?
Let's think of the perfectionistic "tiger" parent for a moment. I think it would be difficult to foster gratitude in an over-scheduled, over-competitive, and "#1 at all costs" tiger environment. Tiger parenting tendencies of building a child's "outside" (i.e. external resume) take priority to developing the child's "inside" (internal character and values). Can you imagine the tiger parent telling their child to not focus on the results of a task (i.e. winning the piano recital) but to have gratitude for the opportunity to learn to play music? As an adolescent psychiatrist, I've treated countless patients who have achieved their cherished external goals, such as acceptance into a dance academy, sports team, or college of "their choice"-- but whose lives are utterly devoid of internal joy. They tell me they feel that they're just going through the motions of life for a fixed result, not living the journey of life.
Throughout my new book, The Dolphin Way: A Parent's Guide to Raising Healthy, Happy, and Self-Motivated Kids Without Turning Into a Tiger (Penguin Books), I show that instead of pushing towards "the best of everything," let's equip our children with the attributes they need to be self-motivated for health, happiness, and success. Time magazine did a comprehensive review of the subject of gratefulness and concluded that the scientifically proven benefits are many, such as better sleep, less depression, less stress, better ability to cope with stress and an improved sense of social relationships and happiness. Try these dolphin tools to teach your children the importance of being grateful:
Create gratitude journals. A gratitude journal is a wonderful and scientifically proven way to guide your child toward health, happiness, and internal motivation. I used to be skeptical of prescribing a gratitude journal to angry or anxious teenagers, because I thought they would reject the idea. However, my patients proved me wrong and over the years, I have seen firsthand how a gratitude journal has been a consistent highly effective tool to shift my patients' thinking from negative to positive.
Role model and guide towards gratefulness. Remember the bedtime tradition I mentioned before? This is just one way to display and guide towards gratefulness. Discuss and share the things you are grateful for with your children. Write thank you cards, phone friends on their birthdays, and model other small acts of kindness in front of your children. Modelling gratitude will show your kids some of the ways gratitude can be expressed personally and towards others.
Serve others. A contribution to one's community is a powerful tool for health, happiness, and self-motivation and I "prescribe" it to all my patients. There is a reason why it feels so good to give. Connecting, sharing, and giving all stimulate powerful reward centers in our neural circuits. The wisdom of ancient sages and saints can is now verified by science.
Your role as a parent has a major impact on your child's understanding of the word gratitude. Take the time to reflect on your own attitude of gratitude and how you project your views onto your children. If you think you are taking gratitude for granted, ask yourself the same question my mother asked me and I ask my children: What are you grateful for today? I encourage you to write your responses in the comment box below this article. If the benefits are correct, you'll be grateful you did!
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Too often we adopt an all-or-nothing stance toward our life and how we wish it would be. Try turning your attention instead to small ways your life was good today. For example, you snacked on an apple instead of a cookie, or were especially kind to an elderly neighbour. Be grateful for such small moments of satisfaction.
Gain perspective on your life by looking at awe-inspiring nature -- the rising and setting sun, for instance, or the power of waves. Doing this will help you see the small size of your problems and stressors in the context of universal forces. Be grateful for the wisdom and strength you can draw from the natural world.
Teach someone how to do what you've become good at, whether it's mentoring a coworker or showing a useful skill to a child. By helping others learn and thrive, you express gratitude in a very tangible way. Because of your generosity, it's inevitable that love and support will come back to you.
Gratitude pays off, much like an investment that grows and pays ever-increasing interest the more you deposit over time. Get in the habit of giving thanks daily for all that you have and the people you love. A wealth of gratitude over time leads to a wealth of opportunities.
Try to align everything you do -- your work, your relationships, your self-improvement, your habits -- with what you most want in life. If you want to be healthy, become aware of how all of your daily actions and interactions fit with that goal. Give thanks for how easy and calm your life becomes once you're living with intention.
Follow Dr. Shimi Kang on Twitter: www.twitter.com/drshimikang