I hated Thanksgiving as a kid. I didn’t get why adults liked to get together to eat a bunch of food and sit around and “visit” with relatives I didn’t even know. I also used to dread those thank you cards my mom made us write after Christmas. But now, I’ve grown to love giving thanks, not just today, but every day of the year.

Practicing gratitude makes us happier. It makes kids happier. And who, living in this persistent pandemic, doesn’t need a little more happy? Youth especially have experienced a sense of prolonged loss and grief and it’s having negative effects on their mental and physical health. Just ask any teacher: these are not easy times for youth and they need our attention to heal.

Gratitude is distinctly different from “looking on the bright side.” It doesn’t require you to deny difficult or negative feelings, it just shifts your focus onto positive thoughts. This focus can be especially hard for youth who feel burdened by constant change and uncertainty. Simply practicing gratitude can make a child more resilient. When we’re in hardship and can focus on the things we are grateful for, we remember to take solace in the fact that our blessings cannot be taken away and we are able to more deeply trust ourselves to weather our circumstances.

You have to learn how to be grateful, but anyone can do it and it just takes practice and a little time. But it pays off in powerful ways. Research shows the list of benefits is long:: better sleep, less anxiety, less pain, more flexibility, less depression, better relationships, and more. Gratitude also stimulates the part of the brain associated with dopamine, the “feel good” neurotransmitter in the brain that tells us to repeat a behavior and create a new learning pathway. So the more you do it, the more you want to do it.

Here’s how to start (or help the youth in your life start):

Be specific: Typically a list of things you are grateful for comes easy. But the feeling behind that gratitude can take a bit longer. So be specific and sit with your gratitude thoughts long enough to connect with the emotion that comes with it. For youth, ask questions to help them get specific. Stick to what, when, who and how questions to help them simply describe their thoughts instead of why questions which imply an explanation is necessary.

Deeply listen. Sometimes negative thoughts are powerful and get in the way of gratitude. Just listening--instead of denying, ignoring, minimizing, or offering advice — can help to defuse the intensity of the negative emotions for others. Practice saying “tell me more.” Refrain from making it better or attempting to shift someone’s perspective. Once the bad feelings are out, there’s usually room for better ones.

Be consistent. Make it a practice to check in on gratuite each and every day. Consistency is the key to great results. Start by changing the questions you usually ask youth (such as the dreaded “how was your day?”) to something more meaningful like “what was one awesome thing that happened today?” or “what are you most grateful about today?”

Don’t save thank you notes for gifts. Write thank you notes often. Not only does this spread a little cheer to someone else, it gives you more moments to tap into those grateful emotions. Teach kids to write thank you notes all the time. Make it a weekly or monthly event.

Get a graduate journal. There are many on the market (my favorites for youth are The Five-Minute Journal for Kids, and Big Life Journal for Kids.) Gratitude journals have short prompts to encourage a little gratitude every day, which is less daunting than writing on a blank page.

Thank you. And enjoy Thanksgiving.

Dianna Kennedy, Extension educator, 4-H Youth Development, Nicollet County.

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