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How Gratitude Can Help Teens Stay Motivated

Research suggests that academic motivation improves with a gratitude practice.

Key points

  • Students face many competing demands on their attention, and may feel overwhelmed and unmotivated as a result.
  • Recent studies find that online or journal-based gratitude interventions increased academic motivation among diverse populations of students.
  • More studies are needed to determine how expressing gratitude impacts academic performance.
Julia M Cameron/Pexels
Source: Julia M Cameron/Pexels

Today’s youth face a constant barrage of information. Whether through social media, television, or other stimuli that compete for their attention, youth are constantly forced to decide what to focus on and devote their energy to.

This barrage of information is overwhelming enough—but children are also asked to take on demanding schoolwork, extracurriculars, and additional responsibilities besides. It's no surprise, then, that some prior research has found that many students lose motivation during the academic school year. Now, new research suggests that an online or physical gratitude journal could help youth regain their academic motivation.

In the first study, published in the journal Emotion, over 1,000 ninth and tenth graders were asked to spend 10 minutes per week writing gratitude letters to teachers, friends, parents, or others to whom they wanted to express their thanks. Students were also asked to reflect on their feelings of gratefulness as well as the people whose actions they were thankful for. (According to previous research published by Froh et al, “experiencing and expressing gratitude comprise a simple way to counter negative appraisals of school and increase school bonding and social adjustment.”)

This study found that students who participated in the gratitude intervention felt more motivated and satisfied with their lives than those who did not. The study did not find that academic performance changed significantly, however; the researchers suggest that future studies could look specifically at gratitude and academic performance.

In a second study, published in the journal BMC Psychology, 84 Japanese university students were asked to participate in an online gratitude journal intervention for two weeks. The study looked at academic motivation among university students and whether a gratitude intervention would change motivation levels. Students’ academic motivation was measured via the Academic Motivation Scale (AMS). The study found that university students’ motivation was positively impacted by the online gratitude intervention and that gratitude’s effects “may be long lasting” (i.e. up to 3 months following a two-week experimental period).

In a third study, published in the journal Computers and Education, a Facebook-based gratitude intervention was reviewed to see its impact(s) on academic motivation among Filipino high school students. The study found that experimental gratitude appeared to improve the high school students’ academic motivation as well as increase “positive learning processes and outcomes.”

What This Means

The studies above help to highlight the importance of positive psychology-rooted interventions—specifically those channeling gratitude—to benefit youth, targeting their motivation and life satisfaction levels. Making gratitude a priority among youth (perhaps even a popular one) can bring about self-improvement changes that can have ripple effects in society.

There is currently a push in academic research to find helpful solutions for youth who face increasingly high demands while learning—such as mask-wearing, competing tech and screen time, social distancing, and more. Future research is needed to determine whether gratitude may improve academic performance, particularly in the long term.