Gratitude – Nature vs. Nurture

It’s been a very trying couple of months, and instead of dwelling on how difficult things have been, I can only feel grateful for a great number of things. There’s a part of me that naturally looks for the positive side of thing, a silver lining of sorts exists in everything. And it’s easy for me to see those things when I’m helping someone else through difficulty, yet it’s often easily missed when it consists of issues that are of a personal nature. I also have training and experience in purposefully seeking the positive aspects of any given situation – so it’s more likely for me to find those positives early in processing life’s dramas and hardships even if I weren’t naturally inclined to see the good in things. So, if this comes so naturally to me, why doesn’t it for everyone?

I have friends and family members who spend most of their days miserable and complaining about everything around them. Their social media posts are filled with negativity and hatred. They certainly don’t seem happy, and no matter how many times you show them that there is science behind positive thinking, and how it can re-wire your brain in the long-term, they still won’t even attempt to find a positive side of any situation, big or small, and the more positive spins you attempt at giving something they’re going through – they’ll point out the negative sides just as fervently and passionately as you do.

So is it nature or nurture? Are you genetically pre-disposed to positive thinking? Is it a result of your environment? Is it a primarily learned behavior, or does it come naturally? Gratitude and positive thinking go hand in hand. The more habitual gratitude you have, the easier it becomes to see the positive side of things habitually. And vice versa, the more you look for the positive sides of things, the more gratitude you feel for various aspects of the situation.

When kids are very small, they display empathy, gratitude, thankfulness, positivity, and often show these attributes even in the face of adversity or difficulty. After many years of witnessing very young children showing these types of actions and emotions, I couldn’t help but wonder what the origins of these conscious and subconscious actions and reactions were. Research backs up what I’ve experienced personally, and at least one study I’ve found indicates that a parent’s positive reactions towards a child as young as 6 to 12 months of age can have an impact on their own ability to naturally react positively later.[1]

Adding to my motivation to learn about these origins, was the matter of my own children at home, who are very kind, gracious, polite, and positive, and thankful in public, towards strangers, towards family, friends, teachers, and everyone they meet – except each other. Everywhere we go I get complimented from strangers and friends alike about how well behaved, well-mannered they are. 

My own research has shown me that while levels of sibling rivalry vary and are natural, it is also quite natural for kids to act more outrageously at home than anywhere else. This is due in part, because home (and mom) is their “safe space” and they know we’re going to love them no matter what, and because they are just typically more comfortable at home to be themselves. But the rivalry, competition, and downright rudeness that happens between them is far too volatile and negative for my preference. As such, we’ve really been preaching and working on kindness towards each other while at home. I believe that the real key to achieving results in this matter begins with gratitude towards each other, gratitude for what they have, both tangibly and within each other’s relationship.

What I’ve found is that science widely accepts that gratitude is a learned behavior and I don’t disagree that it can be, but I believe it’s both learned and built-in. I think that what we teach our children, and how we treat them can affect how they think in the long term, and their subconscious and ingrained thinking has an effect on their behavior throughout their lives. The more habitual gratitude and positivity become, the more naturally inclined they will be to have those as a natural response to situations. A study from the University of British Columbia concluded that some people are genetically predisposed to focus on negative thoughts[2]

And you may have heard of the 50-10-40 figures – often quoted by positive psychologists:

  • 50% of happiness is determined by your genes.
  • 10% of happiness is determined by the circumstances in which you live.
  • 40% of happiness is determined by your actions, your attitude or optimism, and the way you handle situations.

Personality traits which are influenced by genetics but in part learned and even mimicked are also not stable over life. Traits are shaped by a process called ’emergenesis’. When a characteristic is ’emergenic’, it is affected by the interaction of a couple of genes together.

This might result in a behavioral predisposition to be extraverted, self-controlled, or any other trait. There isn’t a singular “happiness gene” or “kindness gene” or “positivity gene” but many of our genetic traits DO shape our natural inclinations to be positive or negative in general, and as I mentioned, this goes hand in hand with gratitude. So, the 50-10-40 formula may have some merit but, I’d like to see more research on the actual weight of our genetics and what percentage affects our positivity, gratitude, kindness and other attributes we are so adamant about teaching our kids.

Sadly, there’s not a lot of research out there, at least not yet. As Positive Psychology stated in a recent article[3] about happiness and the science behind the genetic aspect “The study of happiness is new on the scene” and went on to discuss a twin study, published in the Journal of Neuroscience (De Neve, 2012) showing that subjects with a higher presence of the number of longer alleles of the 5-HTTLPR gene (a serotonin transporter gene) self-reported higher levels of life satisfaction, aka happiness.

So, while there are some aspects that are proven to be genetic, there are still ways I can help teach and guide my kids towards a more positive, kind, grateful, and happy attitude both to others AND each other. Knowing the path to help guide them to become positive and happy adults, starts with knowing the roots of the positive and negative aspects and how to work around those natural and ingrained behaviors. I think we have had some great success simply by practicing gratitude more often, and with more intention than we normally do. I have seen some wonderful improvements since I first took notice of this issue with my boys, and we’ve found that the most beneficial practice, that produces the most successful results, is to simply find ways to practice gratitude – and what better way than to practice towards each other?

I ran across this great infographic with suggestions on how to practice gratitude. How does your family Practice Gratitude?


[1] [source: US National Library of Medicine – National Institutes of Health] – Genetic and Environmental Contributions to the Development of Positive Affect in Infancy October 2016

[2] Science Daily Release – [source: University of British Columbia] Genes predispose some people to focus on the negative

[3] Positive Psychology – Is Happiness Genetic and What Causes It? October 2020

About the Author

Roxi Nevin is a digital media coordinator and On-Demand content specialist at International Institute for Learning where she has worked for six years, as well as the Digital media administrator for the Center for Grateful Leadership. She has been a freelance writer since her teenage years and is currently writing her first novel. She has five children, many of whom she has homeschooled, and is an advocate of the “Peaceful Parenting” method. She is also an outspoken autism awareness activist, as she is not only the parent of children with autism but is also on the spectrum herself. She has embraced the Grateful Leadership message as a lifestyle and has seen major improvements in both herself and her family using the methods taught within the Center for Grateful Leadership.