Gratitude and Mental Health in Teens

By Jamison Monroe

Gratitude and mental health in teens go hand in hand. Gratitude is powerful and plays a fundamental role when it comes to mental health in teens. It might sound hard to believe, but it’s true. Even in times of depression or disappointment, count your blessings. Studies show it can make you feel better. In addition, it can boost psychological health, enhance empathy, and improve self-esteem. Hence, the practice can be particularly successful for adolescents. At our residential treatment centers for teens, we see the power of this daily.

Gratitude Contributes to Mental Health in Teens

Researcher Robert Emmons has looked closely at the link between gratitude and well-being. In one study, Emmons and his team divided participants into three groups; one group was asked to journal regularly about negative events. A second group was asked about the things for which they were grateful. And a third group about neutral life events. Consequently, the gratitude group consistently showed higher well-being measures in comparison with the other two.

“In the face of demoralization, gratitude has the power to energize … Gratitude has the power to bring hope,” Emmons writes. He cites the very first Thanksgiving—a celebration of survival after a winter of death and deprivation—as an example of consciously seeking for light in the darkness.

Resilience and Mental Health

Research by Barbara Fredrickson confirmed this phenomenon. She found that people who cultivated grateful attitudes and other positive emotions in the aftermath of the 9/11 terrorist attacks showed more resilience against depression. Another study found that Vietnam War veterans with higher levels of gratitude experienced lower rates of post-traumatic stress disorder. In conclusion, the simple act of redirecting one’s attention has an impact.

Having an Attitude of Gratitude

For those trying to rehabilitate mental health in teens, an “attitude of gratitude” can be a powerful factor. Gratitude can serve as a huge catalyst for maintaining resilience and well-being. When an individual is able to identify areas of their life they are grateful for, this creates a domino effect. Furthermore, they experience hope and courage. Therefore, this gives them motivation to keep doing the difficult work they are doing. As a result, we see this profound change in teen mental health treatment all the time.

Body-Based Healing

For teens, who don’t naturally gravitate to gratitude, bringing this positive emotion to the forefront can be significant. It is woven into the Newport Academy approach from the moment the clients wake up to when they go sleep at night. Hence, that starts with setting positive intentions at the breakfast table each morning. Throughout the day, teens have multiple opportunities to experience gratitude through action. In addition, this may be in collaboration with peers in a music therapy or Adventure Therapy session; feeling the animal-human connection in an equine therapy session; or appreciating their body’s strength and ability in a yoga class. When you’ve struggled with body image issues and then you do the different postures in yoga and truly feel grateful for every part of your body—even the body parts you once criticized—it begins to create a shift in perception.

Rituals that Heal Mental Health in Teens

Before bed, teens meet to make a gratitude list and talk about what went well that day. All gratitude is worth celebrating and, eventually, the small stuff like “I’m grateful for New Girl because it makes me laugh” grows into “I am grateful to be alive today and to have a second chance.”

Emmons emphasizes that gratitude is a choice. It’s a muscle we can strengthen through daily practice.

Three Ways to Practice Gratitude

Make a list, every day. Before you get out of bed every morning, say five things you’re excited about for the day. Furthermore, when you go to sleep at night, say five things you’re grateful for about your day. Before you know it, you will find yourself expressing gratitude outside of these scheduled times.

Reach out. Another way to practice gratitude is by building peer support and community. When you are around positive, healthy people, you can share your gratitude lists, and they can encourage and affirm you in this process. Hence, it creates a ripple effect. Also, it goes the other way, too: The more grateful you are, the more connected you feel. In a 2007 study, researchers found that people who practiced gratitude had higher levels of perceived social support. In addition, they also had lower levels of stress and depression.

Make someone else happy. I haven’t once left a volunteer or service opportunity wishing I had been doing something different, or not being able to articulate at least one thing that I am grateful for. A study led by Martin Seligman, known as the father of positive psychology, found that a one-time act of thoughtful gratitude produced an immediate 10 percent increase in happiness and 35 percent reduction in depressive symptoms.

What can you do today to cultivate an attitude of gratitude? If you need or someone you love is struggling, please reach out and contact us. We are here to help. 


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Image courtesy of Aaron Burden for Unsplash