What if there was a simple, fun-to-do exercise that could make us happier, healthier and improve our social life? Well, there is one – and it’s all about being thankful.
In a bit, I’ll explain how to practice mindful gratitude with your kids and on your own. But first, let me use science to back this claim.
“It’s not happy people who are thankful. It’s thankful people who are happy.”
Scientifically-supported benefits of gratitude practice
There are plenty of studies out there, but here are a few key points from Emma Seppala’s fine blog post on the benefits of gratitude practice. She’s the Associate Director of the Center for Compassion and Altruism Research and Education at Stanford University, and she has studied happiness and compassion for years.
If you need it, here’s even more science-backed evidence on the positive outcomes of gratitude practice:
Gratitude creates lasting happiness. An attitude of gratitude helps you not only increase positive emotion, but can also sustain it. (ref).
Gratitude protects you from both stress and negativity. Gratitude is associated with decreased anxiety and depression and increased social support (ref).
Gratitude benefits people of all ages – from adolescence to adulthood (ref)
Wow – there are so many great benefits of practicing mindful gratitude! Are you curious to try it out? I’ve practiced mindful gratitude for years, and it gets easier the more you do it, and the more you do it, the more benefits you receive.
Have your own try – it’s super simple!
How to practice gratitude
I do a daily gratitude practice because it’s so simple; I probably wouldn’t if it wasn’t. I started with a journal. Simply jotting down three things that I felt grateful for, on post-it notes, every evening for a few weeks.
That’s exactly the way one group of scientists studied and tested the practice, with one set of participants writing a simple gratitude journal.
How to incorporate gratitude practice into your day
Here’s an example.
I was walking outside with my son today. I felt happy in that moment and thankful for the time I got to spend with him, and so I thanked “the universe” for this huge gift.
I simply recognised a positive emotion and stayed with it for awhile. Long enough to remember it later…
And later, just before bedtime, I recalled that moment of happiness and gratitude and all the other gifts I received today. I used to write them down, but now I usually just sit in peace for a minute or two with a warm heart and a funny grin on my face.
Can’t think of anything to be grateful for?
Gratitude can be about anything, really. The roof over your head, your child. Your senses. The beauty of an evening sky. The bird song you heard today. The scent of flowers. The warmth you feel inside your thick sweater, the sun on your face. Taste, yes taste! A ripe peach, or a piece of delicious chocolate. The touch of a loved one.
There’s so much beauty and so much to be grateful for. You can do it!
But once you’ve started to practice mindful gratitude, how can you then help your kids experience it?
Here are some of my favourite mindfulness exercises for children. Try them out yourself first, then do them with your kids the next day.
Top 3 gratitude exercises for children
1. Gratitude Journal
Keep a gratitude journal. It can be filled with text or pictures, whatever is most appropriate. It can be written in any type of book, on a notepad, or on an electronic device. Anything that works for you will work for you. Yes, even post-it notes will do the trick. Try to add 5 things you are grateful for each day.
You might feel that doing this activity before you start your day works best. This might be a great way to end your day, or you might include it as a lunchtime activity. Do what feels best and be grateful for all this life brings to you.
One fun way of doing this is to write the journal before bed and read it in the morning for a great start.
2. The ABCs of Gratitude
In a seated position, with eyes closed, make your way through the alphabet, beginning with the letter “A.” Think of something you are grateful for that begins with each letter of the alphabet. “I am grateful for Auntie Sue, for bananas, for our cats.” See if you can make it all the way to “z” with a light and grateful heart.
3. Bedtime Thank Yous
Before you fall asleep each night, think of all the happy things that happened to you that day. Say them out loud, write them in a journal, draw a picture of them, whisper them to your heart, and make this a routine that helps you fall asleep with love and gratitude.
How we practice with our 1.5-year old son
Almost every night just before bedtime, we sit together, change diapers and put on PJs. While doing that, we recall the positive experiences from the day.
Tonight, we were thankful for the warm autumn weather and how well our son did at the playground playing with others. The delicious olives he ate – yes, he loves olives. The exciting cars he saw. The list goes on and usually gets funnier.
This fun little celebration gives us the warm fuzzies, and makes the process of actually going to bed so much easier.
You could even make it a game for the whole family, with each member trying to come up with one more thing to be thankful for.
Simple and fun to do, right? You just need to remember to do it – like brushing your teeth. Try it tonight! Make it a fun adventure with the whole family.
So, are we happier and healthier?
I don’t know if we are healthier; I’m not sure how I’d measure that. But we do spend more time savouring and recalling life’s joys together, and it’s certainly easier to recognise positive emotions throughout the day when you practice gratitude like this. There’s simply more contentment available to us on a daily basis.
I love the idea of our son being able to appreciate life more and cultivate more positivity with such a simple exercise.
If you are new to mindfulness with children we recommend that you read our guide: How To Practice Mindfulness With Children – The Essential Guide
Have you tried mindfulness exercises with children before? How did it work out for you? Let us know.
May you be happy and healthy!
Chris Bergstrom is a dad who is thrilled to practice mindfulness with his son. He is trained by Mindful Schools to teach mindfulness to students in K-12 (but not associated with MS) and a member of the American Mindfulness Research Association. He’s also an executive consultant, and has taught meditation for more than 10 years.