negativity bias

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.