Creating Gratitude-based Apps for Youth

Gratitude Applications

At some point in time, we’ve all experienced that moment when things seem to be going wrong and someone says, “Well, look on the bright side.” They then proceed to run down a list of silver linings we could be focused on instead.  If it were really that easy to reframe our perspective, why do so many of us have trouble doing so? The answer may lie in the way our brains are wired. Researchers have discovered that our brains possess a negativity bias; that is, we tend to have stronger emotional responses to negative news than to positive news. For example, we are more upset about losing $10 than we are happy about finding $10 (a phenomenon known as Loss Aversion). Though this negativity bias was once a useful survival tool for our primate ancestors, is can have detrimental effects on our well-being now, and it can increase the likelihood of developing mental illnesses such as depression.

There’s good news though: researchers have discovered that practicing gratitude can counteract our default negativity bias. When we practice gratitude, we are mindfully and intentionally focusing on the positive, which actively rewires the way our brains function. Expressing gratitude brings our awareness to the small, often overlooked, wonderful things happening around us. Psychologists Robert Emmons and Michael McCullough conducted the study in which they asked people to keep a daily gratitude journal. Participants were instructed to write down five things, each day, that they appreciated and were grateful for. The study concluded that keeping a gratitude journal increased overall well-being and positive emotions, reduced stress, improved sleep, increased physical health and even boost the immune system!

Gratitude for all ages

Best of all, gratitude can be developed at any age. This means that with a little guidance and support from teachers, parents and/or mentors, children and adolescents can begin dismantling their negativity bias long before they reach adulthood. Dr. Giacomo Bono, a professor of psychology at California State University, Dominguez Hills, suggests that adolescents can cultivate gratitude by journaling; meanwhile younger children might benefit from drawing pictures of things or people they are grateful for. Furthermore, Dr. Bono has also recommended an activity in which students are instructed to identify their top five strengths and then create “Strength Posters” that are hung on the walls of their classroom. The posters serve as powerful reminders of each student’s unique and inherent gifts. Finally, teachers reinforce positive thinking and gratitude by encouraging students to leave a thank-you note on others’ posters.

Using Technology to Facilitate Gratitude

Dr. Bono believes that apps and other educational technologies could help facilitate the expression of gratitude. He suggests that a platform that enables users to create and send digital thank you notes could be a powerful resource to promote and support mental health. Imagine the benefits of a social network based completely on expressing gratitude to loved ones in a streamlined, effortless way; imagine the feeling of receiving a random digital thank you from someone you mentor, and imagine a generation of kids and adolescents who have no trouble expressing their feelings of gratitude! App developers and EdTech can help make this possible, and may even initiate a ripple effect of gratitude.

Dr. Bono is currently working on ways to convert gratitude from an action into a personality trait. He is utilizing a two-pronged approach: first he instills the value of gratitude in students by teaching them about the science of gratitude. Second, he provides students with safe ways to begin practicing gratitude. It’s important to note that children and adolescents may not want to practice gratitude socially because they are not comfortable showing emotions and disclosing personal matters to others. This is why Dr. Bono uses a web-based app called GiveThx, in which students can practice give and receive expressions of thanks.

The more often children and adolescents experience the emotional and neurological rewards of gratitude, the more likely they are to continue engaging in thanks giving actions.Eventually, the actions become an automatic function and turn become an integrated personality trait.

Gratitude is more than saying kind words that make us feel good in the moment, it is a powerful practice that activates the brain’s reward center, combats our default negativity bias, and builds meaning. In youth, gratitude has the power to facilitate meaningful conversations and build social capital; it encourages personal growth, bigger goal setting, and can create a sense of purpose. Young people especially need to know that they matter and they need to feel as though they can make an actual difference in the world. Apps that activate gratitude may be a huge step forward in supporting purpose-driven attitudes in the next generation of young influencers.

Suggestions for developing apps and media that promote gratitude:

  • Create apps or games that allow people to list the things they are grateful for

  • Find ways to use technology to express appreciation to others

  • Focus on strengths and positive emotions versus what has gone wrong

  • Encourage people to think about their meaning and purpose in life

  • Use images and video clips that inspire people to contribute to society

H. Wenwen Ni, PhD Candidate, UCLA

Wenwen Ni is a PhD candidate in Social Psychology at UCLA. She is passionate about using psychological research to improve well-being.

This blog was originally created to support Baylor University in hosting its Technology Innovation Request for Proposal: Improving Character Strengths of Adolescents through Technology Innovation.

Cultivating Gratitude for a Fulfilling Life

Cultivating Gratitude

Gratitude is one of the first things children learn, as parents constantly urge them to say “thank you” to others who hand out candy on Halloween, share toys in the classroom, or say something sweet. Some even argue that gratitude acts as a “social glue”, strengthening relationships and providing meaning in life. It’s no secret why kids are taught about gratitude as soon as they can talk – research has shown that it improves behavior, increases grades, increases happiness, and decreases risky behaviors. Scientists have been working tirelessly to understand this virtue and new research can provide insights in creating media for young children that cultivates gratitude for a happy and fulfilling life.

Increasing gratitude during childhood is important because this is a key period in development when children have more social relationships than ever before, and it is vital that these relationships are supportive, happy, and healthy.

Psychological Research on Gratitude

A group of scientists from multiple universities teamed up to examine a new intervention for promoting gratitude in young children. In this study, published in School Psychology Review, children were randomly assigned to either a control group or an intervention group that educated children on “benefit-appraisal”. In the benefit-appraisal group, students were taught how to understand a person’s good intentions when helping someone else, how that helping may come at a cost to the giver or helper, and how beneficial it is to receive a gift from someone else. These lessons were not just lectures, but comprised of discussions, writing assignments, and even role-playing activities – activities that target specific ways children learn. These lessons were carried out every day for one week. They found that students who received these lessons showed increased grateful mood and wrote 80% more thank you notes to the parent-teacher association than the students in the control condition! But this intervention didn’t just last a week – the researchers found that it induced gratitude up to five months later and even showed a positive effect on well-being. Scientists believe that this effect is so powerful because the curriculum induces grateful thinking, which manifests as grateful action and attitude, and therefore changed behavior and enhanced well-being.

Gratitude vs Happiness

More research has shown that gratitude may contribute more to children than momentary happiness – it may even ignite a motivation to give back to their community. In this study, middle school students were asked about their gratitude beliefs, social behavior, life satisfaction, and social integration (e.g., motivation to help others) at three different points in time: when the study started, three months later, and six months later. The researchers found that the measurement of gratitude at the start of the study predicted how well students were socially integrated six months later! The factors driving this finding were social behavior and life satisfaction. Their findings suggest that gratitude and social integration build on each other; one predicts the other, and vice versa. The scientists conclude that in order to shape children into thoughtful, caring, contributing members of society, gratitude interventions may be the first step.

Gratitude and Adolescents

Research has shown that teenagers who were more grateful experienced social support from friends and family, increased optimism, and higher satisfaction in all parts of their life, such as school, family, friends, community, and self, as compared with teens who weren’t as grateful. Also,teens who were more grateful reported greater life satisfaction, academic achievement, passion for activities, and they felt less envious, depressed, and materialistic than their not-so-grateful peers. Overall, it’s clear that developing gratitude is a skill that will positively affect almost every aspect of life. Therefore, it’s vital that children’s media make it fun and easy to focus on cultivating gratitude. Thankfully, there are concrete, evidence-based practices that only take a couple minutes a day and can help children lead a fulfilling life full of gratitude.

How to Integrate Gratitude:

  • Counting blessings using a gratitude journal by writing down five things every day for which kids are grateful – take it one step further by also writing down the causes of those good things

  • Kids can write a gratitude letter to someone they never really properly thanked –this will make the receiver feel appreciated and the giver feel fulfilled!

  • Encourage kids to think about what life would be like had a positive event not occurred – this is called mental subtraction and can increase happiness.

  • Show kids that spending money on experiences rather than things will feel better in the long term; instead of buying flashy tennis shoes, buy a board game to play with friends.

Julia Schorn is a second-year Ph.D student in Psychology at UCLA, with a focus in cognitive neuroscience and memory. In her free time she enjoys playing the harp and making science accessible to everyone! and

This blog was originally created to support Baylor University in hosting its Technology Innovation Request for Proposal: Improving Character Strengths of Adolescents through Technology Innovation.