Do Gratitude Diaries *Really* Improve Pupil Resilience?

Do Gratitude Diaries *Really* Improve Pupil Resilience?

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The web is full of articles about the power of gratitude journals to improve our resilience and mental-wellbeing? But how much of this is true - and how much is wishful thinking?

In this episode, we look at whether the evidence stacks up with children of school age. Are gratitude diaries a tool for improving our children†s mental health and emotions - and does any of the scientific research support the internet hype?

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Show notes / transcription

Simon Currigan  0:00  

Welcome to episode nine of school behaviour secrets. In this episode, we're going to look at whether gratitude diaries can really help our children improve their resilience and ask is all the hype on the internet about them warranted? Is it backed by evidence? Welcome to my co host, Emma. 

Emma Shackleton  1:08  

Hi there. 

Simon Currigan  1:09  

So let's get the ball off rolling in the right way. Can you tell me three things you're thankful for today? 

Emma Shackleton  1:15  

Good question. Oh, wow, I am thankful for my family and my dog on pretty equal terms. I must say, I'm thankful that I am healthy and well. And I'm thankful that I've got a great support network of friends around me. 

Simon Currigan  1:34  

According to the internet, that kind of daily practice of naming three things that you're grateful for is the secret to having a positive outlook on life and developing resilience and grit. And keeping a gratitude journal or a gratitude diary, as they're sometimes called, is touted as a simple practical way we can all use everyday to achieve that sense of resilience and grit. 

Emma Shackleton  1:56  

But is it really? Does it really work?

Simon Currigan  1:58  

So let's rub the back of the shaggy dog we call behaviour and find out.

Emma Shackleton  2:04  

Okay, so the first thing to think about then is what is a gratitude diary? What does it mean? While the principle of a gratitude diary is that participants decide that they are going to record three things every day that they were grateful for during that day, it can be something big or something small, it doesn't need to be written down. So it doesn't need to be an arduous task. And ideally, it would be something specific, not a general thing. So you might be thankful for your job. But rather than saying today, I'm thankful for my job, it would be pulling out a specific elements of your job or a specific interaction that has happened that day. So really focusing in on something really clear and specific. 

Simon Currigan  2:55  

People that support gratitude journals also say it's better to focus on small things rather than big things. Because people if they're trying to find three big things they're thankful for every day, they find it really hard to do. And apparently, and we'll look at the effects in the moments, the impact of being thankful for three small things can be as powerful as three big things. 

Emma Shackleton  3:13  

And I guess in some circumstances, it might be really, really hard on some days for some people to find three big things, not setting yourself up to fail by having to look for really big things is really useful, isn't it, you're just going to choose something really small, it might be that tasty cup of tea that you've had, it might be a rainbow that you've seen in the sky, or a bird singing on your way to work. But looking for the small things is much more manageable and achievable. And I think people are more likely to keep up that habit if it's something that they can achieve. And this is supposed to lead to positive feelings, which in turn contribute to a feeling of overall well being. 

Simon Currigan  3:53  

So that's what we mean by gratitude journals are gratitude diaries. So let's have a quick think about what we mean by resilience. We're going to look at three parts to resilience really, the first part we're going to look at is a general outlook on life. How optimistic are we? How positive are we about our lives right now and the future? We're going to look at resilience in terms of can we focus on our long term goals? Can we play the long game? Or do we experience some short term pain and then just give up and we're going to look at resilience in terms of physical and biological levels of stress in the body, and our ability to put up with them. 

Emma Shackleton  4:30  

So thinking about our general outlook on life, then our positivity, it's interesting to note that humans have something called a negativity bias. And what that means is it's an evolutionary mechanism that served as well as a population and as a race. It means that we are naturally inclined to be alert and looking for negatives, things that might be a threat, things that might go wrong things that might cause us difficulties. If you think about this in caveman terms, it's much more useful if your brain is wired to quickly anticipate threats than positive experiences, we are naturally inclined to look for negatives. So we really do need to retrain ourselves out of that negative bias. And we have to retrain ourselves to look for the positives. We've got to make a conscious effort to do that, because most people are not naturally inclined to be that way. So what does the science say about the effect of gratitude on making people feel more positive Simon? 

Simon Currigan  5:37  

There are lots and lots of studies on this there is an interesting one in 2003. And what researchers did was they took a group of people and they randomly assigned them to one of three groups. One group was asked to keep a weekly or a daily diary about hassles they experienced one group was asked to write about neutral events that happened in their lives. And the final group was asked to make a list of things they were grateful for each day. And then they kept a record of their general mood, their ability to cope with difficulties in life, some stuff there about their health and physical symptoms and their overall outlook on life. What they found was the gratitude group did better than the comparison groups. And the researcher said this suggests that consciously focusing on our blessings may have important emotional and interpersonal benefits. There was another study five years later in 2008, which was conducted on adolescence and that found the same thing they looked at 221 teenagers, they were assigned to either a gratitude group or a hassles group or a control condition where nothing really happened to them. What was interesting about that research was they found the impact of completing a gratitude diary could be measured after just three weeks, the kids in the gratitude group found themselves experiencing greater life satisfaction. And there are more studies, there was another one in 2017 that found a link between gratitude journaling and a reduction in depression. So there's lots and lots of research looking at the impact of gratitude diaries, and it does seem to give us a more positive life outlook, it does seem to rewire that negativity bias. 

I just like to take a pause on the podcast for a minute to say that if you're finding this podcast useful, then you'll love what we've got waiting for you in our inner circle programme. The inner circle is your one stop shop for all things behaviour. It's a comprehensive platform filled with videos resources and behaviour inspiration to get you unstuck with classroom behaviour. It feels like having a behaviour expert on call 24 seven online videos walk you through solutions to common behaviour problems, step by step whether it's the best classroom strategies and tactics, behavioural special needs for practical resources, the inner circle has got you covered. And just like Netflix, you can turn it in a circle subscription on or off whenever you need to get the behaviour answers you've been looking for today with inner circle is at and click on the inner circle picture near the top of the page for more information. And now back to the podcast.

Emma Shackleton  8:12  

But there's a problem with this research isn't there?

Simon Currigan  8:15  

There is there is for people like teachers, school leaders, people who work with children, when you look at the evidence most of it has been conducted on adults. And there are some studies I've quoted one about the effect on children. But the studies on children do seem to show that the effect is slightly smaller than it is for adults. There was a study in India, which found no effect of completing a gratitude journal. And what those researchers said was, it might be how we complete our gratitude journals and the way we set our systems up that are as important as whether we complete gratitude journals. 

Emma Shackleton  8:51  

Wouldn't one of the benefits be though that you're setting up a positive life habits that children could take with them into adulthood? Maybe that's why it's worth doing it with children.

Simon Currigan  9:01  

Yeah, setting the stage early, getting them used to those routines and learning that life skill to help them cope and be resilient later in life. 

Emma Shackleton  9:07  


Simon Currigan  9:08  

So the evidence is good, really. But there isn't a lot of evidence of work with children.

Emma Shackleton  9:13  

So another aspect that we were going to focus on was people's ability to focus on long term goals. more resilient people tend to focus on the long term and less resilient people tend to focus on short term wins. And if they don't achieve those short term wins, they're likely to give up quickly. So the people who've got the sticking power tend to be the ones who can suffer a little bit of uncomfortableness or difficult feelings now, because they know in the long run that they're going to benefit but those people who are less resilient, come up against a problem or feel a bit uncomfortable or feel some negativity and are more inclined to give up.

Simon Currigan  9:54  

There's some evidence here to show that social emotions like gratitude, do focus us on our long term goal, so gratitude is a social emotion because normally you would express gratitude to someone else for something they have done for you. Now, there was a really interesting study again, on adults, which is a version of the marshmallow test. I don't know if anyone's familiar with that on 75 participants, and they were randomly assigned to one of three groups, the first group was asked to spend five minutes writing about an experience that made them feel grateful. The second group were asked to write about something that made them feel happy. And the third was just asked to diary their day. So we've got two different emotions here, we've got gratitude, a socially facing emotion. And we've got happiness, which is something we just experienced in ourselves. At the end of that experience, they were then asked if they would like $54 now, or $80, in 30 days. And what happened next was really, really interesting, because the people who were neutral tended to take that smaller $54. straightaway, they tended to think in the very short term, that people who asked to write about being happy, which is a positive, optimistic emotion, also took the $54. If you were asked to think about gratitude, you were much more likely to take the $80, which meant you were happy to put up the discomfort of not having the money now in return for a future profit. So it seems that when we experience gratitude, when we think about things we're grateful for, it puts our focus on the long term, instead of focusing on short term goals, which is a form of resilience.

Emma Shackleton  11:30  

So what you're saying is then that we're more likely to focus on long term goals. So it's almost as if we can see our future thanking us for the actions that we're taking right now. 

Simon Currigan  11:42  

That's right, we can see future Simon and Emmas waving at us being thankful for the things that we're doing.

Emma Shackleton  11:46  

The next aspect that we're going to talk about is the calming effect on our neurobiology of gratitude. Gratitude has been shown to calm down your biological stress system. And if you haven't listened to it yet, do go back to Episode Two, the fascinating interview with Stuart Shanker, where he talks about the effects of stress on behaviour. When you practice gratitude that lowers down your stress chemicals, which means then that you feel calmer, and you're less hyper vigilant and you're less hyper alert because what we do when we slip into that fight or fight stage is we become hyper vigilant and we start scanning for more threats. In this situation, then gratitude is used to reduce that stress response, which means that we become less hyper vigilant and we stop looking out so much for those threats.

Simon Currigan  12:38  

There was a great experiment that prove this, it's one of the cruellest social science tests in existence is called the Trier social stress test. So what they do is they put people in front of a situation that they dread that's very, very common for people to have a phobia about public speaking. So what they do is they get some volunteers to come in, and they give them just a few minutes to prepare a speech and then they have to go out and deliver this speech to a panel of judges. Now, here's the cruel part. They told the judges to be absolutely impassive while they were listening, to give no feedback, not to smile, not to not be completely stony faced. So these poor people had no time to prepare, how to go out and deliver this speech to an audience who gave them absolutely no reaction whatsoever. And the Trier test has been shown that it amps up stress hormones, it increases people's anxiety, it increases people's negative feelings. Researchers have used the Trier test to test whether gratitude has an impact on our ability to regulate all those kind of stress, chemicals, all those anxieties that will be related with being in that experience. So they took in a group of people, and they looked at the people who said they had a habit of expressing daily gratitude and compared their blood pressure and their stress chemicals to the rest of the group. And what they found was throughout the experiment throughout the stress test, they had lower blood pressure. And this is going to lead to less wear and tear on their cardiovascular system, their heart and their lungs. It's also been shown that having gratitude literally decreased the stress chemicals going through their body.

Emma Shackleton  14:15  

So what we're actually saying here is that gratitude can help people to feel calmer and calm, people are generally more resilient and more able to cope with failure. And just as a side note, I have practice gratitude. Over the years I have tried to do this. And I think it can be helpful to have a cue time when you do it. So maybe just before you go to bed, have a little look back on the day and think about what's gone. Well that day. What we tend to do as humans is get into bed and mull over all the things that have gone wrong or mistakes that we might have made, though this is a great way to combat that. In schools. I've seen some lovely activities involving gratitude with the children. One classroom I saw had a little gratitude jar and slips of paper. And each time a child felt grateful for something or expressed gratitude, they would just pop down on that little slip of paper what it was that they were grateful for. And that went into the jar. And then periodically, the teacher just sat down with the class and pulled out of the jar slips of paper didn't say the children's names, it was all anonymous, but just drew attention to positives. So even when we are having a hard time, it can be very useful and beneficial to draw attention to the positives.

Simon Currigan  15:31  

I think what's lovely about having that jar or that journal, as well as it gives you a bank of evidence, you can look over and when things are bad, you can actually flip back and say actually, lots of small things have happened that I can be grateful for.

Emma Shackleton  15:43  

So to conclude, we've discovered that evidence around gratitude is positive, but mostly the effects with adults have been studied. 

Simon Currigan  15:51  

More research needs to be done on its effect on children to see if children respond the same way as adults do. 

Emma Shackleton  15:58  

Anecdotally people tell us the results are positive. And we know many counsellors already recommend the use of gratitude diaries with children of school age. 

Simon Currigan  16:07  

So that's the pros and the cons of the research around using gratitude diaries to increase resilience in kids. If you're interested in supporting children with their emotions, we've got a download called the SEM handbook that can help it can help you link behaviours you see in the classroom with possible underlying causes, like autism or ADHD or attachment. Obviously, this is not about teachers trying to make a diagnosis. And we're not qualified to do that. But it is about helping us link behaviours with possible causes so we can get early intervention in place and get the right agencies helping us as quickly as possible. It's a free download, go to our website, beaconschoolsupport Click on the free resources tab near the top and scroll down and you will see the ASEAN handbook. I'll also drop a direct link to the handbook in the show description. 

Emma Shackleton  16:54  

And in the next episode, we're going to be talking to John Booth who has a unique perspective as a parent, his son has a diagnosis of ADHD and he himself received a diagnosis of ADHD late in life, he's going to give us a first hand perspective of how that condition impacted on his schooling and how he felt about himself as a student. It's a really honest and raw interview, and you don't want to miss it. 

Simon Currigan  17:20  

So with that in mind, if you haven't done it already, open your podcast app now, then hit the subscribe button. That's going to make sure each and every episode of school behaviour secrets arrives in your podcast app without you having to think about it so you never miss a thing. 

Emma Shackleton  17:36  

Last of all, then if you've enjoyed today's episode and found it useful, please leave us an honest rating and review on Apple podcasts. This makes a huge difference to us because the more ratings and reviews you give us, the more you're helping other podcast listeners find the show and join our family of listeners.

Simon Currigan  17:54  

Thanks for listening to score behaviour secrets we've been grateful to have you - see what I did there. Have a great week and we look forward to talking to you again. Bye now.

(This automated transcript may not be 100% accurate.)