This article first appeared on SelfGrowth.com
There is a general sense that children today are unhappier and more ungrateful than a generation ago. On the face of it, it seems strange. Our children have more than we could have ever imagined possessing – more gadgets, more clothes, more experiences, more opportunities – and yet somehow it just does not seem enough.
In reality though, it all makes sense. You see there is a reward and threat circuitry with associated networks in our brains that evolved at a time when finding sweeter berries and larger streams of water was essential for our survival. It is still deeply embedded in our neural structure even though the world in the 21st century bears little resemblance to the world of our hunter gatherer fore fathers.
As we continued to survive as a species, we developed neural and societal structures that also enabled us to thrive. We began living in tribes and depending on each other for our wellbeing. We developed strengths of character, most notably that of gratitude that grounded us in our place in the larger social structure and saw our success as resting on many shoulders.
And then we were catapulted into this new era of endless opportunities. Our children are growing up with an entirely different mindset to the one we had. “You can be anything you want”, “Your success is in your hands” and other such well-meaning mantras that are making our children blind to the people and opportunities around them that are impacting their lives in positive ways.
This does matter. Our success as a species has always depended on our interactions, our bonding, our creativity that flows through teamwork. Isolating ourselves in tiny bubbles of self-esteem and hoping we will fly high is wishful thinking at its best.
When we place ourselves at the center of our worlds, we may reap the rewards, but we also take the fall when things do not go as we planned. There is an escalation of expectations we place on ourselves, making it more likely that we will not be able to achieve them, resulting in feelings of failure. There is a reason depression and suicide are eating up our children in increasing numbers and at alarmingly younger ages.
Even when we do get what we want, in a world where we could have gotten anything we desired, there is always the regret of the path not chosen and the opportunity cost associated with it. Knowing that our success depends on more factors than just our greatness, makes us realize that things could have gone differently and feel grateful for all the people and opportunities that helped make it happen even in small and inconceivable ways. This results in feelings of connection, essential for our wellbeing as the most social animal on the planet.
Calming the Insatiable Greed for More
Gratitude is more than connection. It calms the ancient circuitry in the brain that perpetually seeks better and more so that we can function with our more recent human excellence. This is especially important for children and more so in this day and age than ever before with unlimited choice, each one more enticing than the last. Our children have not yet developed the executive functions that can guide them through comprehensive decision-making. They operate with the emotional brains that insatiably seek instant pleasures. Gratitude calms those neural networks and enables them to know when to stop, sit back and take in the good of what they have received. Voila, planting the seeds of happiness.
The Role of Parents
We cannot change our brains, but we can turn our children gently in the direction of gratitude and contentment. Firstly, we need to limit the choices in their lives. The emotional brain that evolved to maximize reward and minimize pain did not ever fathom 150 types of barbies, of cookies, of markers. By providing them with a few good options and letting them decide, we save the energy spent on needless decisions and free it up for more creative functioning.
Secondly, we need to model gratitude. We have gratitude not because we are exceptional but because we grew up with seeing gratitude being modelled in the house. It was part of the culture, part of the daily lingo. Today, we ourselves barely stop through the day to give thanks for anyone or anything in our lives. In fact, we actively complain about many things, most of all our children and their attitude. Labelling them as ungrateful is hardly going to be the impetus for them to become grateful children. We need to do better.
Gratitude is firstly about noticing the good that has happened in our life. It is then about being genuinely grateful to the person or for the opportunity that has helped make it possible. And finally, it is about wanting to give back. Gratitude is not only about feeling good, but also about doing good – it is in effect a virtuous act of generosity and compassion. When we truly appreciate what has been done for us, we have an innate urge to reciprocate and research has shown us time and again that we humans are wired to do kind acts. Doing something good for someone makes both parties happy – it is evolution’s way of ensuring our wellbeing. In today’s world, where our children grow up with an insatiable quest of “what’s in it for me”, gratitude may be just what the doctor recommended.
I wish children understood this. Inspired by the research linking happiness to gratitude, I had my own 4 begin a Gratitude journal 3 nights a week. As I flicked through pages of my little one’s journal a few weeks later, I was shocked by the very first entry that read: “I’m grateful I do not have to write in this silly journal tomorrow night”. Every subsequent entry said the same thing – until the 8th.
It read: “I am grateful we got cupcakes at school today because they had sprinkles on them”.
The 12th read: “I am grateful I share my room with (older sister) because I get really scared at night”.
Last night it read: “I am grateful I have a nice home because some people do not”.
I am hopeful. Children do as they see you do, not as you tell them to do. It is in our hands to imbue them in a culture of gratitude so that they grow up as contented and caring individuals, for no human lives in a bubble, and the sooner we bust their’s, the better we equip them for life.