Is Your Teen Materialistic? Give Them a Daily Gratitude Journal

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It will make them a much nicer person -- and a more eco-friendly one, too!

Telling teens to "be grateful for what they have" is easier said than done. Adolescence is a tough time for many young people, with self-esteem plummeting, a fixation on their own needs and wants, and a tendency to disregard help received from others. As a result, teens are often very materialistic, more concerned about acquiring physical possessions than doing well in school or staying motivated. In fact, thanks to the bombardment of advertising these days, some psychologists believe we've created "the most materialistic generation in history."

This comes with a price. Too much materialism threatens healthy psychological development. It augments anxiety and depression, increases the likelihood of drug and alcohol abuse, and causes selfish behavior to worsen, undermining family relations. Then there are the environmental side-effects of too much materialism -- rampant consumption that consumes resources unnecessarily and generates great amounts of waste.

Scientists know that there is a negative correlation between gratitude and materialism, which means that the more grateful a person is, the less materialistic they are. In other words, if you can encourage the one characteristic, the other will diminish. So how does a concerned parent go about making this happen? A group of researchers from the University of Illinois in Chicago has a solution. They conducted two experiments with over 900 participants to reach a very simple conclusion: Get your teen a gratitude journal. The research is published in the Journal of Positive Psychology. Here's what they discovered.

In the first study, 870 adolescents between ages 11 and 17 were asked to complete "an online eight-item measure of materialism assessing the value placed on money and material goods, and a four-item measure of gratitude assessing how thankful they are for people and possessions in their lives." They were asked questions such as "If I had to make a list of things I’m thankful for, it would be a long list" and "It’s easy to think of things to be thankful for." After studying the lists, it was found that higher levels of gratitude are associated with lower levels of materialism in adolescents across a wide range of demographic groups.

The second study goes more in depth with intriguing results. Sixty-one adolescents were asked to complete the same lists as above, assessing perceptions of people and possessions in their lives, then all were given blank journals. One group was told to list what they were grateful for each day, and the other was told to list daily activities. After two weeks, participants were given ten $1 bills and told they could either keep it or donate to charity. From the study:

"Adolescents who kept a gratitude journal donated 60 percent more of their earnings to charity compared to those in the control condition."

Keeping a gratitude journal had a profound effect on those young people, helping them to place less value on material possessions and be grateful for what they have. The control group, with its daily activity journal, "retained their pre-journal levels of gratitude and materialism." (via press release)

Fostering an attitude of gratitude is a valuable practice in any family's life. Whether you distribute journals to each family member or go around the table at dinner to say what you're most grateful for each day, it's a small yet powerful action that will not only make you feel better inside and closer to the people around you, but, if practiced widely, could also ease up some of the great demands on our planet.