With the holiday season upon us, Americans believe gratitude is one of the most important values parents can instill in their children along with kindness, compassion and manners – far outpacing chores, sports and even reading. However, a large majority (89%) feel that society is becoming so concerned with success that we are forgetting about what is truly important, and that people are becoming more selfish (86%), raising potential red flags for the future.

The latest Keep Good Going Report, sponsored by New York Life, asked respondents to rate the importance of various lessons Americans can impart to their children. The report revealed this ranking:

Percentage of Americans Who Say it is Extremely Important To:

  • Teach children to be kind and compassionate – 74%
  • Instill good manners in children – 74%
  • Teach children to be grateful and appreciative – 72%
  • Teach children good financial habits – 59%
  • Read to their children – 59%
  • Give children household chores – 46%
  • Encourage children to play a sport or instrument – 28%

Notably, the leading values of kindness, manners and gratitude were common across all age groups, from the Silent Generation to Generation Y. Even further, Americans are practicing what they preach when it comes to the importance of expressing gratitude. Four in five respondents (81%) say that they often take the time to sincerely thank someone or express appreciation. This topped the list of actions commonly viewed as good and was well ahead of recycling (72%), letting someone merge into traffic ahead of you (68%), visiting a local, independent retailer (56%), or going on a “date night” with your spouse or significant other (33%).

“Whether you’re 18 or 80, values like kindness and generosity are common across generations,” said Dr. Christine Carter, author of Raising Happiness, sociologist at UC Berkeley’s Greater Good Science Center, and independent consultant to New York Life. “But Americans are articulating serious concerns that these values may be getting lost or overwhelmed in today’s society. The good news is that there are many ways to consciously practice gratitude, which can pay long-term dividends beyond simply the good feeling that comes from saying thank you.”

“We commissioned this research to gain a better understanding of what Americans value and how they are perpetuating good in their lives,” said Liz McCarthy, senior vice president and head of Corporate Communications, New York Life. “It’s heartening to see timeless values like gratitude and compassion rise to the top of the list, which bodes well for the future even as society wrestles with real challenges.”

Expert Offers Advice for Cultivating Gratitude

To live a good life, Americans clearly believe in being grateful and teaching children the importance of gratitude, but the report points out concerns that society may be on the wrong track. Like the general population, parents of children under age 18, who are in the midst of instilling the values that their children will take into the future, feel strongly that society is overly concerned about success (90%) and that people are becoming more selfish (86%).

“A powerful way to move away from a self-centered focus on success is to refocus ourselves and our children on what we are grateful for,” said Dr. Carter. “Gratitude is foundational for our happiness and well-being, and it is easy and rewarding to practice. Many people are surprised to hear that gratitude, or thankfulness, is actually a skill that we can teach and practice with our children.”

Some of Dr. Carter’s tips for fostering gratitude in families this holiday season include:

  • Use the holidays as a time to give thanks for people in your life. Before a holiday meal, make construction paper place cards for each guest and ask everyone to set aside time to write on the inside of each place card something that they love or appreciate about that person.
  • Consciously weave gratitude into your daily interactions, using the common question “How are you?” as a prompt to reflect on something for which you are grateful. Then share that thought with the other person, or just keep it to yourself if you’re feeling shy.
  • Create a gratitude garland. Hang a ribbon in a doorway, and put a basket of colored paper squares below it, with pens and clothes pins. When guests and family members enter that room, ask them to write something they feel grateful for and hang it up.

Survey Methodology

The Keep Good Going Report survey was sponsored by New York Life and conducted online by Mathew Greenwald & Associates, Inc., in August 2012, among 2,069 individuals age 21 or older.