Grateful Kids Flourish, But Are They Also Less Violent?

The role of gratitude in social harmony

Posted Jan 24, 2013

Grateful kids are nice kids. We think you’d agree. Unpacking “nice” a bit, our research shows that grateful kids are happier, more satisfied with their relationships and school experiences, more prosocial, more committed to using their strengths to better their community, less envious, less depressed, and less materialistic. But can being grateful stop your kids from being violent? Scientific evidence suggests it can.

When people feel grateful they see themselves as the recipients of others’ kind acts, which in turn drives them to return favors and be prosocial toward benefactors and others. Indeed, recognizing the goodness in your life and acknowledging that many sources of that goodness lie outside yourself makes you want to return kind gestures to your benefactor and maybe even to strangers. This may be why gratitude may mitigate aggressive or violent tendencies. That’s what a fascinating 5-study paper by DeWall and colleagues (2012) suggests, to which we turn next.

In Study 1, undergraduates completed measures of gratitude, aggression, and positive emotions daily for 25 days. Results indicated that, independent of one’s level of positive emotions, when in a grateful mood people were less likely to agree with questions such as “Given enough provocation today, I might hit another person.”

In Study 2, the researchers examined aggression in response to provocation by having undergraduates record all face-to-face social interactions for two weeks and for each interaction recording their feelings of gratitude and happiness, whether or not their feelings were hurt, and if their feelings were hurt how much anger they expressed toward their perpetrator. Results indicated that, independent of one’s happiness, when the people experienced gratitude during their interactions, they were less likely to report their feelings being hurt and less likely to report expressing their anger toward the perpetrator.

In Study 3, undergraduates were asked to write an essay about a time when they were angry and were then randomly assigned to either a gratitude condition or control condition (write about things they’re grateful for or about things they like to do). Subsequently, participants received feedback about their essays, with some told their essays were excellent and others told their essays were horrible. During a subsequent competitive task with the person who allegedly gave them the positive or insulting feedback, participants had an opportunity for payback! Winners of the task could choose to blast the other person with a loud dose of white noise in their ears. Results indicated that participants in the control condition responded with longer and more intense retaliation for the insult and that participants in the gratitude condition suppressed themselves from retaliating to the insult.

Now that we have data from multiple methodologies showing that being grateful is linked with less aggression, the question becomes why. Using both cross-sectional (Study 4) and longitudinal evidence (Study 5) DeWall and colleagues found that empathy (i.e., being caring, self-sacrificing, and generally positive) helps to explain this relationship. In other words, being grateful is related with being more empathic which in turn is related with being less aggressive.

What does this mean for parents, teachers, and others who have kids in their lives? The big take-home message, we think, is that helping make kids more grateful might not only make them happier and more satisfied with their lives, but it may also make them less likely to lash out at others who have hurt them. Sure, no one wants their kid to be the playground punching bag. But not all provocations deserve, in our opinion, physical retaliation. In such instances, gratitude may help our kids regulate their emotional response to a hurtful exchange better. Indeed, we have longitudinal data indicating that teens who are more grateful also have more self-control and that increasing gratitude right when identity is forming correlates with fewer reports of antisocial and delinquent behaviors during this time (Bono, Froh, & Emmons, 2012). In upcoming months we’ll be exploring this further to better examine gratitude’s role in prosocial development. With weekly instances of violence erupting these days, it’s comforting to be discovering that gratitude can help. After all, as the title of DeWall’s paper suggests, it seems that a grateful heart can be a non-violent heart.

Bono, G., Froh, J. J., Emmons, R. A. (Aug, 2012). Searching for the developmental role of gratitude: A 4-year longitudinal analysis. Paper presented at the annual meeting of the American Psychological Association.

DeWall, C. N., Lambert, N. M., Pond, Jr., R. S., Kashdan, T. B., & Fincham, F. D. (2012). A grateful heart is a non-violent heart: Cross-sectional, experience sampling, longitudinal, and experimental evidence. Social Psychological and Personality Science, 3 (2), 232-240.

About the Authors

Giacomo Bono is an assistant professor of psychology at California State University, Dominguez Hills.

Jeffrey J. Froh, Psy.D.

Jeffrey J. Froh, Psy.D., is an associate professor of psychology at Hofstra University.


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