I talked to a colleague the other day who told me that his 15-year old son had taken our on-line measure of character strengths. The son's top strength was gratitude. My colleague shook his head and said wryly, "We're sure not seeing that."
I might have said that the survey was not working for his son, but instead I said, "Maybe you're not paying enough attention." I wanted to believe that the test was valid in this case, for the sake of my colleague's son as well as my colleague, because our previous research has shown that gratitude is one of the strengths of character most robustly associated with life satisfaction and all the good things that follow from that.
Gratitude is what we call a strength of the heart because it forges an emotional bond between people. To be sure, not everyone expresses gratitude loudly and clearly (like 15-year old boys), but we should listen hard for it, given how precious gratitude is.
A recent study by Jeffrey Froh, Giacomo Bono, and Robert Emmons (2010) clarified what might be going on for adolescents who are grateful, and why this disposition is a beneficial one. Their sample was 700 middle school students, who completed a self-report measure of gratitude at one point in time and measures of life satisfaction and social integration at subsequent points in time.
Results were clear: Consistent with previous research, gratitude led to subsequent life satisfaction, and one of the pathways was increased social integration. So, gratitude indeed bonds us to others.
I'm not sure why, but several years ago, I started to thumbtack the thank-you cards and notes I received on a bulletin board in my office. I call this the Wall of Gratitude. Before, I simply read such cards and notes, smiled, and tossed them in the garbage. How incredibly stupid of me. Displaying them on a bulletin board provides a constant reminder, not that I do good things for people (most of the thank-you notes were for mundane things that are part of my professional role, like writing a letter of recommendation or giving a guest lecture) but rather that people are appreciative. When I am down and troubled, I look at my bulletin board and myself feel grateful that other people are as well. What a wonderful world, and I mean specifically the social world in which we live.
Other people matter. But few of them are mind readers. Let them know that they matter. They might benefit. And you certainly will.
Froh, J. J., Bono, G., & Emmons, R. (2010). Being grateful is beyond good manners: Gratitude and motivation to contribute to society among early adolescents. Motivation and Emotion, 34, 144-157.
Park, N., & Peterson, C. (2006). Character strengths and happiness among young children: Content analysis of parental descriptions. Journal of Happiness Studies, 7, 323-341.
Park, N., Peterson, C., & Seligman, M. E. P. (2004). Strengths of character and well-being. Journal of Social and Clinical Psychology, 23, 603-619.