Froh began to design a new study, working with a K–12 parochial school, where he could test a gratitude intervention on kids from grades 3, 8, and 12, to look for the effects of age.
That Froh had chosen a parochial school was an interesting choice. The school’s religious teachings on sacrifice could have already given its students an increased awareness of gratitude. Froh knew that these kids were already regularly taught to count their blessings in the context of prayer.
To give them something new, Froh didn’t ask these children to list five things every day. Instead, they were to pick one person in their lives—someone they’d never fully expressed their appreciation for—and write them a letter of thanks. They worked on this letter in class, three times a week, for two weeks, elaborating on their feelings and polishing their prose. On the final Friday, they were to set up a time with that person and read the letter to them, out loud, face-to-face.
Their letters were heartbreaking and sincere, demonstrating a depth of thoughtfulness not seen in the previous study. “It was a hyperemotional exercise for them,” Froh said. “Really, it was such an intense experience. Every time I reread those letters, I choke up.”
But when Froh analyzed the data, again he ran into the same problem—overall, the kids hadn’t benefited from the intervention. What was going on?
To solve it, Froh had to extract himself from another assumption.
He’d assumed that positive emotions, like gratitude, are inherently protective—they ward off problem behavior and prevent troubled moods. He wasn’t alone in this assumption; in fact, it is the core premise of every scholar working in the field of positive psychology.
Because of this, Froh had expected to find an inverse relationship between gratitude and negative emotions, such as distress, shame, nervousness, hostility, and fear. Meaning, even if he couldn’t change the amount of kids’ gratitude the way Emmons had, Froh still expected that some kids would feel a lot of gratitude, and others less or none at all. And he figured that kids who felt very grateful and appreciative would be spared from the brunt of troubled moods. It should protect them. But the data from his multiple studies didn’t support this. Kids high in gratitude suffered storms of emotion just as commonly as the kids low in gratitude.
At that point, Froh’s thinking was sparked by a few scholars who were rethinking the hedonic treadmill.
“They argued that happiness is not a unitary construct,” Froh explained. “You can feel good and have well-being, but still be nervous, still be stressed. You can feel better overall, but the daily stressors haven’t necessarily gone away. For a scholar, this means that when you measure for positive affect, negative affect, and life satisfaction, they won’t all move in the same direction.”
Froh looked very carefully at each band of data measuring the kids’ emotions during the second study. Overall, writing the thank-you letters had little benefit, just like his prior study. But this aggregation masked what was really going on. It turned out that some kids were benefiting from the exercise, while others weren’t. Together, their scores canceled each other out.
Those who benefited from the exercise were kids low in positive affect—kids who rarely experienced emotions like excitement, hope, strength, interest, and inspiration. Writing the thank-you letter, and presenting it to a parent, coach, or friend, did indeed fill them with gratitude and make them feel better about their lives. “Those are the kids who would really benefit from gratitude exercises,” said Froh. “The children who usually appear unengaged, or not very alert. They’re rarely cheerful or content.”
However—and this is the important twist—for those kids who normally experienced a lot of hope and excitement, Froh’s exercise had the opposite outcome. It made them feel less happy, hopeful, and grateful.
Why was the gratitude exercise making them feel worse? What could possibly be bad about gratitude?
Well, for kids with a strong need for autonomy and independence, it might be demoralizing to recognize how much they are dependent upon grownups. They might already feel like adults are pulling all the strings in their lives—controlling what they eat, what they study, what they’re allowed to wear, and who they hang out with. And they’d rather feel self-reliant than beholden. Their sense of independence might be an illusion, but it’s a necessary illusion for their psychological balance and future growth into genuine independence. Their lack of gratitude might be the way they maintain the illusion that they are in control of their own lives.
Froh is considering that his intervention led those children to realize just how much of their lives depended on someone else’s whim or sacrifice. They didn’t feel happy that people were always there doing things for them. Instead, it made them feel powerless.