What if there was a simple solution to low self-esteem, depression, anxiety, and other mental health struggles? Studies show that living in thanksgiving can stand alone in adding to our mental health. Gratitude is free, easily accessible, and has no side effects! In this episode I will share how I take my gratitude pills and help my kids take theirs :).
What if there was a simple solution to low self-esteem, depression, anxiety, and other mental health struggles? What if the solution was free, easily accessible, and had no side effects? Don’t you think everyone would want some of it? Especially in a world where things like social media can lead to us to feeling like we are never enough. Well, tons of scientific studies have researched this very thing.
One that I recently discovered by Chih-Che Lin was published in March of 2017 in the journal Current Psychology. It analyzed higher-order gratitude on psychological well-being...after controlling for demographics and personality. So after removing factors such as age, race, religion, and money, and personality traits like being friendly, outgoing, thoughtful, etc. they analyzed the impact of gratitude on individuals.
Now, lots of studies have been done on how gratitude affects a person’s mood, but this study was different because it analyzed more than just temporary effects of saying thank you, but deeper effects of having a generalized attitude of gratitude, specifically what they call “higher-order gratitude.” This type of gratitude consists of five specific aspects: thanking others, thanking God, cherishing blessings, appreciating hardship, and cherishing the moment.
The study indicates that “higher order gratitude,” or what I’ll call living in thanksgiving, can stand alone in adding to our mental health! It is not a cure-all, but a free, easily accessible, no side effect prescription for added mental health.
This week in the United States is arguably my favorite holiday, Thanksgiving Day!! I love Thanksgiving because to celebrate, all you do is gather a bunch of food and family, sit together, eat, and feel grateful. That’s it! It is simple, stress-free (unless you’re an overwhelmed host I suppose), and beautiful.
So in honor of Thanksgiving I want to share how I take my grateful pills and help my children take theirs.
First, thanking others.
My husband and I are big believers in teaching our children to work. We want them to know life does not just hand out food, shelter, and clothing. These are things that come from hard work and sacrifice. So several months ago we incorporated a new chore system to help them develop a good work ethic. (I’m thinking of doing a whole episode on that at some point...but for now I just want to talk about what we call Kitchen Duty.)
One of the unexpected outcomes of those new responsibilities is that our children have been noticeably more grateful. So here’s what we do. Since we have five people in our family, we have assigned each week day to one person. (Weekends we all share the responsibilities.) My husband’s Kitchen Duty day is Monday, so on Monday morning he makes breakfast, does the dishes, and packs school lunches. In the evening he makes dinner and does the dishes. So basically anything related to meal planning, prep and clean up is his responsibility on Mondays. On Thursday is my 7 year-old’s assigned day. His meals often consist of a simple noodle and sauce (my kids love just noodles with butter and lemon pepper). If he needs help, I am available, but I’ve been amazed at how capable everyone is at preparing meals and cleaning up. (And they love when their day is over and they don’t have to worry about it for another week.)
I love so many things about having everyone be assigned a day, like the responsibility it teaches them, the flexibility it gives me - not being tied to the kitchen all the time, the variety of meals everyone comes up with, the feelings we have of contributing to the team, and so much more. But one of my favorite things is when we sit down to a meal that one of my children has made, and I hear the other kids say, “Thanks Blake, or Cadence, or Avy.” Because being responsible for preparing a meal has given them insight into what it takes. It has helped them see that meals don’t just magically appear. It has helped them recognize what others do to serve them.
Another thing I have learned is really important is thanking others before correcting them. We actually have a sign in our home that says, “Thank First.” It reminds us, for example, that when someone is chewing with their mouth open and we want to say, “shut your mouth!” if we first thank them for something, it is not only easier for the receiver, but it also softens our own hearts so we speak more gently. This Thank First motto has actually probably been the best for me. It has helped me to notice the good that my kids do before calling them out on the backpacks left on the floor, the incomplete homework, or the dishes left undone. Listen to how different this feels. “Why haven’t you brushed your teeth yet?” would turn into, “Thank you for playing so happily, now will you go brush your teeth please?”
Saying thank you is powerful.
Some of “the others” I hope my kids will be grateful for are their ancestors. We don’t know very many of them personally, but we have so much to thank them for. The choices they made paved the way for us. I recently hung pictures of all their first and second great-grandparents as a reminder of the people they wouldn’t be here without. It’s been really cool to see my kids want to learn about them and be more grateful for them.
The next aspect of higher-order gratitude is thanking God.
Where do you begin to teach children to thank God? One of my favorites is through their own unique bodies.
I once heard a retired heart surgeon talk about the wonders of the human body.
He said, “Each organ of your body is a wondrous gift from God. Each eye has an autofocusing lens. Nerves and muscles control two eyes to make a single three-dimensional image. The eyes are connected to the brain, which records the sights seen. Your heart is an incredible pump. It has four delicate valves that control the direction of blood flow. These valves open and close more than 100,000 times a day—36 million times a year. Yet, unless altered by disease, they are able to withstand such stress almost indefinitely. Think of the body’s defense system. To protect it from harm, it perceives pain. In response to infection, it generates antibodies. The skin provides protection. It warns against injury that excessive heat or cold might cause.The body renews its own outdated cells and regulates the levels of its own vital ingredients. The body heals its cuts, bruises, and broken bones. Its capacity for reproduction is another sacred gift from God (Nelson, 2012).”
In the grand scheme of things, the body is one small, but very tangible example of opportunities to thank God. So every time your child uses his or her senses, you can point out their amazing eyes, ears, hands, mouth, nose and more. There are times when bandaging a skinned knee I say to my kids something like, “Isn’t it amazing that God created your skin so that it could heal itself? All you have to do is keep it clean and cover it with a bandaid, and a miracle will happen!”
Another way we can teach our children to thank God is by acknowledging His creations. I love nature. I love sunrises and sunsets. I love blue skies, and cloudy skies. I love every season. I love new life in the spring, and I love to see nature rest in frozen winter. I love oceans and mountains and deserts. I love trees and flowers and ladybugs. I love when the sun shines through my windows. I love rain and snow and even hail (which is saying a lot since hailstorms have been known to wreak havoc in my neck of the woods). I love wind and stillness. I love rocks and sand (weird fact about me - thinking about sand makes my mouth water, and makes me weak in the knees. I LOVE IT!)
Sometimes loving these things is a conscious choice. But I recognize that God created this world and everything in it. And because of that I can appreciate all of it. (Maybe I don’t appreciate scorpions, but I can appreciate that God had a purpose for creating them…)
When we express our love and gratitude for God’s creations, we are helping our children recognize a greater power in their lives--a Being that loves them and is watching over them and providing for them --and that will undoubtedly contribute to their psychological well-being.
The next aspect of living in thanksgiving is cherishing blessings. I think of these as the basics of gratitude. They are the things we think of when we play the abc gratitude game - where each of us takes turns saying something we are grateful for that starts with each letter of the alphabet. I like it even better when we play it where everyone has to say a blessing that starts with every letter. So 5 A blessings and 5 B blessings, etc. That helps all of us think a little bit deeper rather than just jumping to the first word that comes to mind.
In full disclosure, I am not always the most grateful person. As a small example - I am blessed to only have to grocery shop about once every three weeks, so when I do I bring home three weeks worth of fruit, vegetables, milk, bread, etc. for five people, and it takes me more than a couple minutes to put it all away. Shamefully, there have been too many times where I have come home from grocery shopping and complained about having to put all the food away. Isn’t that awful? Complaining about too much food?! Whenever I catch myself complaining about the very things other people might that very moment be praying to receive, I know I need to make a change.
One time when we were sitting around the table eating dinner I wanted my kids to be more grateful for it so I helped them think about the source of the food. In the summer we have a beautiful garden where we grow most of our vegetables, and six apple trees that produce a huge load of fruit every other year. But most of the time we buy our food, so our kids don’t really connect the food to its source. So this one dinner I asked my kids to think of where the food they were eating came from. At first they couldn’t think beyond the grocery store, but then I probed by asking how it got to the grocery store. We talked about the process all the way from planting the seed, to where the water came from, to the people who picked it and how they were providing for their families, to how it was transported to our grocery store. We talked about barge workers and truck drivers, and what the lifestyle of those people might be like. I asked how many people they thought touched the food before it reached our table. Of course there’s no way of knowing, but we felt gratitude for each pair of hands.
I hope my kids never have to lose a blessing in order to be grateful for it. Once we pretended to have a natural disaster and lived out of our 72 hour kids for 24 hours. It really helped us appreciate our many comforts. We have a roof over our heads. We have enough food, and a variety of food to eat, We have transportation to wherever we need to go. We have people who love us and we love them. We can read and write and have access to unlimited books to read. We have the internet and its wealth of information. We have smart devices that help us stay in touch with distant family. We have beds to sleep in with just the right pillows. We have clean water to drink. We have endless entertainment options.
When I stop to look at the world through gratitude lenses, I am completely overwhelmed. I mean, I actually have a small tiled room I can step inside of, lift a lever and a steady stream of warm water just flows out. It is such a miracle when I stop to think about it!
The next aspect of living in thanksgiving is appreciating hardship.
I believe our hardships can lead to anger and bitterness, or to increased love and compassion. Which direction we go is up to us.
My greatest hardships have been related to strained relationships, mental health problems, sexual abuse trauma, death of loved ones and pregnancy loss. With each of these I have experienced a roller coaster of emotions, including anger, jealousy, shame, pride, loneliness, sorrow, and regret. Such intense emotions have threatened to swallow me up at times. But with each of these hardships I can pinpoint the role that gratitude has had in not only eventually overcoming them, but in enduring them in the moment.
I want to teach my children the beauty that can come from our hardships. I believe there is a great purpose in going through hard things. My trials have changed me...hopefully for the better!
One of the blessings of hardships is the empathy we can develop. I had amazing support when I lost my pregnancy. It rocked me more than I could have anticipated, but when I opened up about what I was going through I was blown away by the hearts that reached out and felt it with me. There were several women who, having had their own miscarriages, openly wept with me because they had been there. I hope I am now one of them, someone who climbs down in the pit and feels pain with those experiencing loss.
On that note, why is it that we allow ourselves to go through some of our hardest challenges in secret? I am definitely guilty of this. Opening up to trusted loved ones about struggles we are having can deepen relationships unlike any other experiences. I’ll never forget loved ones who have wrapped their arms around me when I have been courageous enough to open up. They cried with me, served me, and encouraged me through my pains. They have been like angels on earth.
Another blessing of hardships is the personal growth we can experience. Since I’m sharing weird facts about me, here’s another one - I have chosen to birth each of my children naturally for several reasons - but one of those reasons is because I love that feeling of doing something really hard and then coming out victorious on the other side! When I pushed my almost ten pound baby boy out with no medication, I knew there was nothing I couldn’t do! So I’m not saying we should seek out a hard life on purpose, but when challenges do come, helping our children face them head on with courage and thanksgiving will help them see what they’re capable of.
CHERISHING THE MOMENT
The last higher-order gratitude aspect is cherishing the moment.
To me this means stopping to have a dance party even when the house is a mess. Or going outside to look at a caterpillar your child found when you’re exhausted or in the middle of a pile of laundry. Sometimes that means having a scoop of ice cream on Saturday morning waffles. Be spontaneous, enjoy life when things are not perfect, and slow down to appreciate the little things.
Cherishing the moment also means not wishing life away always thinking, I can’t wait until we buy a house, or I can’t wait until my daughter gets her drivers license, or I can’t wait until he’s potty trained, or I can’t wait until Spring. There will always be things to look forward to, and if we waste our present moments constantly looking forward we’ll never arrive! Every phase of life has sunshine and clouds. Showing our kids how to appreciate both is key to their life satisfaction.
I’m a believer that what we say programs our brains to believe it. There was one spring here in Montana that was extremely windy. Everyone was complaining about the wind. I knew that I didn’t need to be irritated with the wind, I could find a reason to appreciate it. So I brainstormed a bunch of fun activities that require wind and it changed my whole outlook. Winters in Montana are long and cold but I once heard someone say there’s no such thing as bad weather, only bad clothing. With that perspective, I don’t need to complain about the weather, I just need to layer up! Talking with a glass half full perspective helps me believe those positive things I’m saying. And there really are so many ways to enjoy long cold, dark days! Like family game nights!
So, to recap, thanking others, thanking God, cherishing blessings, appreciating hardship, and cherishing the moment are elements of deep gratitude that will permeate our lives and make everything a little better. Our kids need that as they grow up in a self-absorbed, disconnected world. I shared a few specific things I do with my kids to help them be grateful, but I think mostly it’s my own gratitude that will influence theirs.
I am so grateful I get to be a mom and have an influence on the future! I am grateful I get to share a piece of myself and my perspective with you. I am so thankful you are listening today. You make my podcasting efforts worth it. I am so encouraged by the kind things you say. Recently I received a review that totally made my day… it said, “Thank you for creating this podcast! I love it. I love what you are doing and the lives you are touching. You make such a difference. Your thoughts, kindness, compassion and strength are overwhelmingly good. So much to learn for all of us!!! Thank you!!” How could I not keep going when I get encouragement like that?! And the great thing is, reviews like that not only fill me with motivation to keep creating new episodes, but they also make the entire podcast more accessible to others who might need it. So thank you so much! And thank you for making the world a better place by being a focused, intentional parent. You are amazing.
Thanks for listening, and have an awesome day!
P.S. References :)
Lin, C.C. (2017, March). The effect of higher-order gratitude on mental well-being: Beyond personality and unifactoral gratitude. Current Psychology, 36. https://doi-org.ezproxy1.lib.asu.edu/10.1007/s12144-015-9392-0
Nelson, R.S. (2012, May). Thanks be to God. Ensign, 80. Retrieved from https://www.churchofjesuschrist.org/study/general-conference/2012/04/thanks-be-to-god?lang=eng