I can always tell by the end of the first session which students are going to be the most successful with their Spikes. I started formulating this theory early on in The Spike Lab’s history, and the trend has held true almost without fail. If a student performs one simple gesture, I know there’s a high chance they will build a world-class, impactful Spike. Watching this trend has led me to believe in the power and importance of teaching kids gratitude.
What’s the tell? The student ends the session by saying thank you.
When I hear these words at the end of a call, I light up. Especially when a student says “thanks for your time.” Ultimately, these words are a simple, small expression of gratitude, but they speak volumes about a person’s character and potential. My theory of gratitude is this: people show gratitude when they possess a few key dispositions – humility, attention to detail, and empathy. Any person with these dispositions is poised to do great things.
Of course, the “thank you” test isn’t flawless – a very grateful student can easily forget to end a call this way. But my larger point here is that teaching kids gratitude as a practice is one of the best, lowest-cost ways to help set them up for success in life. If there’s a single habit that I would call a cheat code for immediately increasing someone’s quality of life, building a habit of gratitude is it.
In this article, I’ll explain why grateful people succeed, highlight some of the science behind gratitude, and share some concrete advice for how busy teens can become more grateful.
Here we go.
Teaching kids gratitude: What is it?
Broadly speaking, giving gratitude means acknowledging and appreciating a gift we have received. These gifts might come from another person, from nature, or from a higher power. This handy guide, which offers ten definitions of gratitude, quotes expert Dr. Robert Emmons, who says that gratitude happens in two stages.
- The acknowledgement of good things in life.
- Recognition that the source of many good things comes from outside ourselves, from others who have made sacrifices for us.
Both of these stages are integral to gratitude’s effect on the mind.
Gratitude Leads to Growth, Growth Leads to Success
At first glance, it may seem that gratitude and personal growth have nothing to do with one another. They might even be conflicting ideas. If a person is always giving thanks for what they have, what’s to motivate them to change, improve, or grow?
In reality, growth and gratitude complement each other perfectly. This is especially true in our current world, which is increasingly dynamic, complex, and full of unknowns. The people who succeed are those who adapt, learn, and innovate; not those who think they know it all. When we practice gratitude, we strengthen the exact traits that help us learn and innovate: humility, attention to detail, and empathy.
A huge part of growing is having the humility to be a beginner. Jake the Dog in Adventure Time puts it eloquently: “Sucking at something is the first step toward being sort of good at something.” Humility, when combined with curiosity and ambition, is known as the beginner’s mindset. Keeping this mindset throughout life is crucial to success
Attention to Detail
People who consistently express gratitude can do so because they notice small details to be thankful for. It’s exactly this kind of careful noticing that allows people to pick up on patterns, learn, and, in an entrepreneurial or creative context, come up with breakthrough ideas.
Thanking a person for their time is an act of empathy, and empathy is a crucial skill in business, arts, and politics. More importantly, having high empathy allows a person to earn the most valuable resource: other people’s good will. We learn faster when we are able to recruit other people to our mission and learn from and with them.
Gratitude allows us to reframe challenges as opportunities for growth. The actor who doesn’t get the part, but is grateful to have learned from the audition, has their head in the right place.
You’ll find these dispositions in successful people across all disciplines. Practicing gratitude creates a positive feedback loop: when we express gratitude, we strengthen these dispositions, which then leads us to express more gratitude, and so on. Keep in mind that gratitude alone won’t lead to success. Success requires hunger, subject-matter knowledge, perseverance, and a laundry list of other things. But when I see a student express gratitude, I know they have a strong foundation.
The Science of Gratitude and Success
Since the 1990’s, when psychology researcher Dr. Martin Seligman created the positive psychology movement, scientific researchers have shown the profound and lasting positive effects of gratitude. Top researchers like Dr. Jo-Ann Tsan, Dr. Robert Emmons, and Dr. Michael MCullough have built a body of insights on how giving gratitude affects our behavior.
Here are a few highlights:
- People who consistently practice gratitude tend to be more:
- Resistant to stress
- Adept at forming relationships
- Likely to have an optimistic outlook on their life (Emmons)
- When young people show gratitude, they increase their desire to give back to their neighborhood, community, and world. (Emmons)
- Research shows a strong link between showing gratitude and self-improvement and intrinsic motivation. As we’ve written before, finding intrinsic motivation is huge for high school students.
I don’t want to give science all the credit for these discoveries. In a sense, the scientific community is playing catch up to the many philosophers and world religions that have made acknowledged the benefits of gratitude. In fact, deep down, most of our ancestors probably knew the benefits of gratitude – Dr. Michael McCullough has claimed that gratitude contributed to the evolutionary success of humans.
Tips for teaching kids gratitude
Like many traits in life (both positive and negative) gratitude is something we can cultivate through habit. It’s like a muscle: it gets stronger when we train it regularly. But where to start with teaching kids gratitude? Whether you’re a teen or a parent of a teen, here are a few tips:
- Start by noticing. Practice identifying moments and people you’re grateful for. A sunny day, a parent giving you a ride to school, a new surprise album release by your favorite musician. We can see all of these as gifts.
- Find your moment. A new habit is more likely to stick when we link it to another habit we already have. Choose a daily or weekly time and a place to practice giving gratitude, whether it’s in the shower or during a ride to or from school. Many religious households choose to give gratitude before a meal.
- Make gratitude a habit, and commit. Buy a journal and follow one of the many templates for starting a gratitude journal. Writing once a week is a good start.
- Recruit others in your community. The app GiveThx is like a social media platform for gratitude. A study of high schoolers who practiced gratitude and used GiveThx over six weeks showed strikingly positive results.
- Say thank you (and mean it). To return to my original test, a thank you can go a long way. Practice saying it often. But make sure you say it when you mean it. Many kids are taught to say thank you as a reflex, but a thank you is much more powerful when we know why we’re thankful. Plus, people can usually tell the difference between a thank you that’s authentic and one that isn’t.
- Celebrate small victories. It’s easy to get caught up in pursuit of the big wins, to feel like we can only give thanks once we get into the right college or win a state championship. In reality, celebrating the small wins matters just as much. Many of life’s successes happen in the little details. It would be a shame not to notice them.
Closing Thoughts & Why I’m Grateful
In a fast-paced world where we receive new information every day, it’s easy to lose sight of the simple things that enable us to live, work, and grow. Years of scientific research tell us that taking a moment to appreciate these things makes life healthier and more meaningful in the long run. Based on this research, there may come a time when giving gratitude is thought of in the same way that we now think of exercise and hygiene.
Personally, I’m grateful for the amazing team of adults at The Spike Lab as well as each of the incredible students I get to work with every day. As that well-worn teacher’s saying goes, I learn as much from them as I hope they learn from me. It’s a cliche, but also a way of teaching kids gratitude by role-modeling it.
Gratitude is especially important for people working on ambitious projects. If you’re a high school student who wants to do something extraordinary with your time in high school, book a private consultation. We’d love to hear from you.