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The Psychology Of What Makes Teens Thankful

This is a guest report from Youth Radio and TurnStyle News.

Gratitude, research psychologists have found, is an abstract concept. It requires reflecting on not only how another person has done right by you, but also how you might return the favor. Perhaps that’s not something we need experts to tell us, but it’s worth bearing in mind when considering whether gratitude might be beyond the capabilities of the teenage brain.

Take for example the popular YouTube clip “Greatest freak out ever (ORIGINAL VIDEO),” in which a teenage boy goes ballistic in his bedroom after his mom cancels his World of Warcraft account. “I’m going to run away! You’ll never see me again! I swear!” he shouts, as he slams himself repeatedly into his bed, tears off his clothes and screeches like someone out of an Exorcist movie.

Personally, my mom would kill me if I ever acted like that. But according to scientific studies, his lack of gratitude makes him pretty normal. In gratitude surveys, the only people who score lower than teenagers are people with Post-traumatic Stress Disorder.

“I mean, it’s just unavoidable,” said Giacomo Bono, a professor at Cal State Dominguez Hills who studies gratitude among adolescents. Although a lack of gratitude may be inevitable among teens today, Bono rejects the argument that it’s just a natural limitation of adolescence. In his view, the environment plays a big role.

“One of the reasons would be the commercial culture that young people are finding themselves in,” he said. “Having to be a consumer is something that young people are starting to do without even understanding it all.”

Luckily for teenagers, Bono said feelings of gratitude – and an awareness of things to be grateful for – can change over time. One of the ways to measure that change is through a survey called the GQ6. It’s a questionnaire with only six statements to rank on a scale of “strongly disagree” to “strongly agree.” Statements like, “I have so much in life to be thankful for.” The highest possible score is a 42; most teens score in the upper-twenties.

Measuring Gratitude

Something didn’t seem right about those scores. I consider myself a grateful 17 year old, and when I took the survey, I scored a 37 – pretty high no matter what, but much higher than the average for my age group.

And I’m not the only grateful teenager I know. I started asking other people my age if they had anything to be grateful for. They answered easily: family, a job, college scholarships, music, love, and understanding.

I wanted to know how these teens would do on the GQ6. I started handing it out to people I know from work and from my church youth group. Obviously, it’s not a random sample. And it’s not a big enough group to be considered scientific. But I certainly got some interesting results: the young people I interviewed, particularly those in their late teens, scored much higher in gratitude then teens had in published studies.

“I’m so grateful for everything that God has given me,” Bianca Brooks, 17, told me after filling out the questionnaire. She scored a highest-possible 42. She was happy to elaborate on her gratitude: “I’m grateful for family, friends, fashion, food… Wow, that all begins with F; and funk, music.”

If I had given her this survey a few years ago, however, her score might not have been so high. When she was in middle school, she was “just such a selfish, self-centered person,” she said. “I didn’t really care.” But as she got older, Brooks said she got closer to her religion and her outlook on gratitude changed. Which made me wonder: is it her religion that makes her so grateful?

What Makes Teens Grateful?

I went back over the surveys and was shocked to discover that the highest scoring teenagers I talked to generally said they weren’t religious at all. An example is Salim Boykin, 16, who answered “no” on the questionnaire when asked if he was religious. He had a more practical reason for being grateful: “If you’re not grateful, you’ll go through life either depressed or just sad not really knowing why.

Giacomo Bono says Boykin is already tuned into something his research consistently shows — that feeling gratitude actually makes people’s lives better. They take better care of themselves, and they’re nicer to other people.

“What gratitude does is it tunes us into the essentials,” Bono said. And why is it so important to be mindful of what’s important? “It improves people’s lives and it improves relationships,” he said.

The teens I surveyed all felt like that was true. But according to Bono, they’re still not the norm — for a lot of teenagers, the most important thing is “to acquire a thousand friends on Facebook.”

So why are my results so skewed toward gratitude? Bono said it might be because all the teens I interviewed are part of communities: some are involved with church, others with Youth Radio.

“Where there’s a strong sense of community, where young people feel at home, that tends to produce gratitude too,” he said. “When you find something you love, that’s a good achievement in life.”

Bono has found in his research that many young people are less grateful because they don’t yet know what their purpose is. In other words, my contemporaries probably aren’t ungrateful people – they’re just still figuring out what to be grateful for.

Casey Miner produced this story.

Youth Radio Investigates is an NSF-supported science reporting series in which young journalists collect and analyze original data with professional scientists, and then tell unexpected stories about what they discover.

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