Worry and pessimism have been creeping into my thoughts more regularly with wars, natural disasters, political divisiveness, and inflation dominating headlines. I want to be an example of gratitude in my home, but I’ll admit, it’s not always my strong point when so much seems bleak. Additionally, teaching children gratitude, and being more grateful myself, can be challenging when there are constant advertisements and social media messages telling us we need more, or that we're not enough.
Gratitude might not solve the problems of the world, but it can help us feel more peaceful and hold onto a celestial perspective as we live through the difficulties of this earthly life. The best way to teach it? By example.
Heather Johnson, professional counselor, adjunct Brigham Young University professor, and mother of six, shared four ways to cultivate more gratitude in our homes in her Seek course, Raising Grateful and Emotionally Intelligent Children. The ideas Heather shares work best, and become truly internalized, when we provide an example to follow by modeling how to cultivate gratitude and then work on building a gratitude practice together.
Focus on the value of gratitude
When we focus on the value of gratitude, “We have to give it our energy,” Heather explains. This means that we show gratitude even when it isn’t easy or when the situation doesn’t lend itself to those kinds of feelings, such as when worrisome topics occupy the headlines.
Heather reminds us that in November of 2020, President Russell M. Nelson asked everyone in the world to focus on gratitude during the time of trial and uncertainty brought on by the COVID-19 pandemic. He said, “No matter our situation, showing gratitude for our privileges is a unique, fast-acting, and long-lasting spiritual prescription.”
Focusing on the value of gratitude is also healing. The Mayo Clinic reports that “Expressing gratitude is associated with a host of mental and physical benefits. Studies have shown that feeling thankful can improve sleep, mood, and immunity. Gratitude can decrease depression, anxiety, difficulties with chronic pain, and risk of disease.”
Cultivating the value of gratitude provides many blessings that we may not notice immediately, but we will feel their benefits over time. Heather has learned from her research that, “gratitude reduces feelings of anger and frustration, and even lessens regret after negative feedback. We feel less frustrated after someone says something negative when we express gratitude.”
In our homes, we can work together to focus on the value of gratitude when it isn’t the easiest thing to do. This can look like finding a way to show gratitude after a gallon of milk gets dropped and splits open on the kitchen floor, or in seeing the good when traffic makes us late even though we left in time to get to an event early, or it could be expressing thanks when an illness sidelines us from our daily routines.
Heather shares, “Our children too can have a perspective that … focuses on feeling happy as they go through the challenges they face in their own lives.” The value of gratitude isn’t measurable like money or tangible items, but it provides a lasting payoff for our well-being.
Give credit to something bigger
Giving credit to something bigger can be to give credit to God for blessings, but Heather explains that a person doesn’t need to be religious or start with a religious aspect, to look for something bigger than themselves to be grateful for. A person can express gratitude “to nature, to the wind, or to anyone around them,” she says. While we often offer thanks for things that make us comfortable or inspire us, it can also look like having gratitude for the ability to complete a task or learn a new skill.
Heather has recognized her parents as “something bigger,” and she’s grateful for them because of the opportunities they gave her to develop skills and abilities that help her in life today. Recognizing the role her parents played turns her thoughts to her Heavenly Father who gave her those parents, which helps her build more gratitude.
How can this play out in our homes?
As parents, we don’t often thank the children in our lives for the role that they play in helping us become the people we are, but their lives shape us as much as we do theirs. Model this idea of giving credit to something bigger by thanking a child in your life for what they have taught you and pointing out how this helps you feel more gratitude. Has a five-year-old demonstrated wonder and helped you slow down and see the world differently? Has a teen shown you how to be a better friend through the way they communicate with their friends? Has a young adult given you a broadened perspective of acceptance and love? Heather shares, “Giving credit to something bigger than us helps us experience and hang on to gratitude.”
Create daily gratitude practices
“Counting our blessings every day is not a new perspective when it comes to being grateful,” Heather admits. “We want to make sure we recognize it because it works so well.”
One reason for making gratitude a regular practice is that our “brains are designed to problem-solve, rather than appreciate.” For gratitude to make a difference in our lives, we need to consciously work at it because it won't come naturally to our minds first.
Like Heather, you can create a gratitude ritual tied to something you do every day. Every time she gets in the car, Heather says three things she’s grateful for. Even if she’s started the car several times in one day, she still lists three things each time. This example is one way to personally build more gratitude and gives you a chance to share thankfulness with others.
Tying a gratitude practice to something you do every day can turn simple, daily tasks into meaningful experiences. These rituals can bring more peace and bring us closer to loved ones as we share the practice. As a family, this could start as a discussion around creating a gratitude ritual that everyone does around the same task. Maybe it’s thinking of two things you’re grateful for when you put on your shoes, one for the left, one for the right. Or perhaps name something you’re thankful for when you put toothpaste on your toothbrush, a simple post-it note on the mirror could serve as a reminder. Use Heather’s example and when you get in the car, think of three things you’re grateful for and if you’re with someone, say those three things out loud.
Heather also suggests creating a family gratitude journal where every day, each person in the family writes down one thing they are thankful for. This could be an object, a person, an experience, something in nature, or something from scripture—anything that sparks gratitude or meaning in a particular moment in time. “Imagine what it would be like in ten years if every day your family, and every member of your family, wrote down something they were grateful for, and then over time you went back to read those things to remind yourself that even in the strains and in the struggles … there were always, and will always be things to be grateful for.”
Replace comparison with joy
You’ve heard the phrase, “Comparison is the thief of joy.” Attributed to Theodore Roosevelt, it’s still quoted today because we find it’s often true. How do we take our joy back? You know the answer. By expressing gratitude. Heather shares, “Gratitude actually chases comparison away.” It sounds too simplistic for gratitude to be the antidote, but from personal practice, I know it works.
I’ve recently found myself comparing my new living circumstances to the expectations I had for myself at this point in life. This comparison mindset has left me feeling—well, I haven’t been feeling joy. As I’ve adjusted to the situation, I’ve leaned into gratitude to help shift my perspective, and it works. To clarify, I’m not defining joy here as “jumping up and down with glee.” To me, the joy I feel through gratitude is more like peace distilling into my heart in a way I wasn’t feeling before. As President Nelson said, “The joy we feel has little to do with the circumstances of our lives and everything to do with the focus of our lives.”
What can we do when society and social media often remind us of the endless ways to compare ourselves to others? “Gratitude and joy are the very best of friends,” Heather states, and recommends replacing comparison with gratitude. To do this, we need to be conscious of building a gratitude practice, otherwise, it will be easy for comparison to creep into our thoughts and steal away joy.
To work on replacing comparison with gratitude in our homes, be open and share these kinds of thoughts with a family member. This way, when you’re caught in the comparison trap, you can have help identifying ways to be grateful. Healthy ways to show gratitude when feeling comparison can be to recognize what makes someone unique or to identify individual growth and what made that growth possible.
The most effective way to overcome comparison is to focus on our divine identity. Elder Dieter F. Uchtdorf of the Quorum of the Twelve Apostles reminds us that, “No matter where you live, no matter how humble your circumstances, how meager your employment, how limited your abilities, how ordinary your appearance, or how little your calling in the Church may appear to you, you are not invisible to your Heavenly Father. He loves you.” Expressing gratitude for someone is a gentle way to remind them of God’s love and of their individual worth.
Where to begin?
Being specific and personal are helpful tips to remember as you begin a daily personal and family gratitude practice. For instance, rather than saying, “I’m grateful for trees,” turn it into something like, “I’m grateful for the tree in the front yard because the way the leaves sound when the wind blows helps me feel calm.” If you repeat being grateful for a thing or a person, add a detail that makes the expression of gratitude unique for that day. Maybe you feel gratitude for a friend again. Ask yourself what it is that made you thankful for that specific friend today.
Implementing these four gratitude habits at once would be ideal but isn’t realistic. Instead, individually, and as a family, choose one of these four foundational ideas to focus on at a time to build a gratitude practice that will be sustainable and lasting.
To learn more, Heather Johnson’s Seek course is a wealth of information to help you build healthy mindsets and practices for emotional intelligence, growth, and strong relationships in the home.