While gratitude has been long been celebrated as a spiritual and philosophical virtue, psychologists are discovering that an attitude of thanksgiving can also have a powerful, positive impact on psychological well-being. The UC Davis School of Psychology and the John Templeton Foundation, for instance, are dedicating resources toward a longitudinal study of gratitude, its positive effects on personal well-being, and ways to cultivate it. Business schools like the Graziado School of Business at Pepperdine University are exploring the impact of gratitude on leadership and organizational health. Researchers in the Positive Psychology field credit the act of giving thanks with everything from stronger parent-child relationships and more satisfying friendships to better sex. Both the giver of thanks and the receiver are thought to benefit from outward expressions of gratitude.
For parents who are struggling to connect with their teen or young adult, this research has enormous implications. Merely being thankful is likely to increase your own contentment, centeredness, and positivity, all things that make it easier to connect with others. But saying a sincere “thank you” out loud can have even more benefits for you and for your teen or young adult child. And what’s more, it’s so easy to do!
But since your daughter’s sincerity radar is generally set to “suspicion,” it’s critical to cultivate sincerity prior to effusing gratitude. That’s the hard part. Life isn’t always easy. There’s pain and frustration. It can be difficult to maintain a spirit of thankfulness when things aren’t going perfectly. But if you do manage to cultivate a genuinely thankful spirit, all of this well-researched psychological benefit is yours for a couple of easy words: “thank” and “you.”
Here are some tips for cultivating the attitude of gratitude that’s necessary for saying a real, believable “thank you” with, for, and to your adolescent or young-adult child.
Search the Haystack
Gratitude is specific. In the great haystack of life (work, family, finances, and adult obligations) it’s easy to miss the sharp points of goodness that we can be thankful for. But they’re there if you look. That cup of espresso you’re sipping to wake you up for a busy, challenging day, is quite a fine little drink. So slow down and taste it! How lucky you are to have work even on a day like today when nothing’s going right. So smile a secret smile of thanks while you engage your most challenging client.
Gratitude Journal
Keep a daily journal of things you’re thankful for. Write each dated entry as a simple list. This discipline will help you search the haystack of your life so that you can find and keep the little good things hiding in it.
Go down your list of things you’re thankful for today and, as time permits, close your eyes and visualize each one. If it’s a person, give him or her a hug or a kiss or a smile in your mind’s eye. Feel it. Enjoy it. If it’s a thing, imagine it in detail.
Thank Someone
A complete experience of gratitude requires two things: an object, the thing you’re thankful for, and an agent, the person who provides the object. Sometimes the object and the agent are the same, for instance if you’re thankful to your wife for being such a beautiful, kind wife. Other times, the object and the agent are different, like when you’re thankful to your own parents for raising such a spectacular person–you! Or like when you’re thankful to your neighbor for watching your dog when you go on vacation. So as you reflect on the various objects of your gratitude, let your mind also go to the agent responsible, and internally acknowledge (at least) or verbally communicate your gratitude to that person.
Higher Power
If you’re thankful for a sunset or trees or today’s weather, it can be a little tricky to thank the agent of those great gifts unless you happen to believe in a higher power. If you do, or even if you just wonder, it can be helpful to lob your expressions of thankfulness skyward (assuming that’s where you believe your higher power resides). Research shows that prayer can yield more than just future spiritual benefits; it’s an emotionally powerful, wellness-enhancing medium for expressing gratitude for sunsets, trees, weather and just about any other good thing!
Say “You’re Welcome”
It’s true of nearly everything, gifts, massages, meals, hugs, sex, praise, that the better you are at receiving the better you’ll be at giving. It’s true of gratitude as well. If you find yourself deflecting other people’s efforts to thank you with a dismissive wave of the hand, a falsely humble headshake, or a blocking phrase like “not at all,” or “it was nothing,” then…knock it off! For everyone to benefit maximally from an act of thanksgiving, that act must be accepted. If someone lobs a sincere “thanks” your way, do them (and yourself) a favor: look them in the eye, smile, and say, “you’re welcome.”  Enjoy it! That’s what gratitude is all about, after all, giving, receiving, and enjoying.