Matthew, a twelve-year-old middle school student who lives within a wealthy suburb, had a home life quite different than that of his peers: he and his mother had found themselves in a long-term shelter because of a financial crisis, and Matthew had to commute to school by public bus rather than the expensive cars his friends’ parents used to drop their children off. As winter approached, Matthew continued to come to school dressed in jeans and T-shirts with just a thin sweatshirt for covering, prompting one teacher, Mrs. Riebe, to give him a wool sports jacket from the donation bin at her church.
It was a kind gesture, but a sixth grader wearing a sport jacket in a prosperous public school means one thing: a bully target. Matthew, however, wasn’t bullied, nor was he embarrassed about wearing an oversized jacket. Instead, he smiled from ear to ear. “Check out this cool jacket Mrs. Riebe gave me, I love it. I can’t stop thanking her,” he’d say to his friends and other teachers. His infectious positivity was so appealing even other kids recognized and respected it.
The circumstances in which Matthew lived might make many children feel envious, cheated, angry, and resentful. Yet Matthew felt incredibly grateful to his teachers and friends because his mother, despite the constraints on her time and finances, had instilled a sense of gratitude in Matthew; and this had a profound effect on his approach to life. We’ve collected nearly two thousand essays on what gratitude means to teens, Matthew’s essay among them. He wrote, “My life wouldn’t be the same without the people who’ve helped me succeed. I’m thankful to God and my family, friends, and even my teachers for helping me improve my life.”
This story of an adolescent who lives below the material standards of most of his peers and has to make much more of an effort to get to school and participate in extracurricular activities is a small but profound example of the power that gratitude can have on a young person’s emotional well-being, relationships, spirituality, and success. In fact, our experience as counselors and researchers working with at-risk children and adolescents supports this assumption. But Matthew is no ordinary kid because he has learned to harness a virtue that’s been long-revered, but historically underappreciated: gratitude.
What to Expect from Developing a Grateful Personality
There are four qualities that distinguish highly grateful people from less grateful people: they experience gratitude (1) more intensely for a positive event, (2) more frequently throughout the day (3) with greater density for any given benefit (i.e., they are grateful to more people for every positive event), and (4) they have a wider span of benefits at any given time in their lives for which they’re grateful (e.g., for being included in an activity or being defended by someone, for succeeding on a test or performing well in a game). Therefore, one way you’ll know that your child and you are becoming more grateful after following the strategies in this book is that you’ll both start to noticeably embody these four qualities.