The psychology of what makes teens thankful
Teenagers often feel misunderstood. It’s a hard time of life – somewhere between childhood and adulthood, not quite one or the other – with a future that is at once uncertain, exciting, and overwhelming. It’s no wonder that they can seem ungrateful for what’s going on in the present – and that’s something researchers have found repeatedly. Youth Radio’s Rayana Godfrey decided to take that presumption on in this report on the science of.
RAYANA GODFREY: My mom would kill me if I ever acted like the kid in this popular YouTube video:
TEEN (from YouTube): I'm going to run away, you'll never see me again. I swear.
This teenage boy is throwing a tantrum because his mom said he couldn’t play his videogames anymore. To you, it might seem a little excessive – there are worse things than losing game privileges. 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.
GIACOMO BONO: I mean, it's just unavoidable.
Giacomo Bono, a professor at Cal State Dominguez Hills, studies gratitude among adolescents. He rejects the argument that teens’ lack of gratitude is just a natural part of adolescence. In his view, the environment plays a big role.
BONO: One of the reasons would be the commercial culture that young people are finding themselves in. Having to be a consumer is something that young people are starting to do without even understanding it all.
Luckily for teenagers, Bono says 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.” For example, “I have so much in life to be thankful for.” The highest possible score is a 42; most teens score in the upper-20s.
Something didn't seem right about that score. 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. So I started asking other people my age if they had anything to be grateful for.
ASHA: I am grateful for my family, my college scholarships...
SAYRE QUEVADO: To have a job, so that I can put food on the table for myself...
UNIDENTIFIED STUDENT 1: Music...
UNIDENTIFIED STUDENT 2: Love...
JOELLE: The chance I get to wake up...
DEREK WILLIAMS: And I'm grateful for understanding.
I wanted to know how these teens would do on the survey. 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, score much higher in gratitude then teens had in published studies. Seventeen-year-old Bianca Brooks had a score of 42.
BIANCA BROOKS: I’m grateful for family, friends, fashion, food – wow that all begins with F – and funk music.
If we’d given her this survey a few years ago, her score might not have been so high.
BROOKS: When I was in middle school and I was just such a selfish, self-centered person, I didn’t really care…
But Brooks says as she got older, she got closer to her religion and her outlook on gratitude changed.
BROOKS: I’m so grateful for everything that God has given me.
Brooks is religious. So is that the reason she’s grateful? I went back over the surveys and was shocked to discover that the highest scoring teenagers I talked to said they weren’t religious at all. An example is Salim Boykin, 16, and this is what he said when asked why it’s important to be grateful:
SALIM BOYKIN: If you’re not grateful, you’ll go through life either depressed or just sad not really knowing why.
BONO: What gratitude does is it tunes us into the essentials.
Psychologist Giacomo Bono says Boykin is already tuned into something his research consistently shows – that feeling grateful actually gives real effects.
BONO: It improves people's lives and it improves relationships.
The teens I surveyed all felt like that was true. But Bono says they're still not the norm – for a lot of teenagers, the most important thing is...
BONO: ...to acquire a thousand friends on Facebook.
So why are my results so skewed toward gratitude? Bono says it might be because all the teens I interviewed are part of communities: Some are involved with church, others with Youth Radio.
BONO: And where there's a strong sense of community, where young people feel at home, that tends to produce gratitude too. When you find something you love, you know, that's a good achievement in life.
Bono says many young people are less grateful because they don't yet know what their purpose is. In other words, my peers may not be ungrateful people – they're just still figuring out what to be thankful for.
For Youth Radio, I'm Rayana Godfrey.
This story was originally published at TurnStyle News, a project of Youth Radio in Oakland.