In his book, The Little Book of Gratitude: Create a Life of Happiness and Well-being by Giving Thanks, Professor Robert Emmons wrote, “Gratitude is fertiliser for the mind, spreading connections and improving its function in nearly every realm of experience.”
Yesterday (21 September) was World Gratitude Day. Perhaps the day passed you by, or maybe you stopped and noticed what you are grateful for (and this is something you regularly do).
Yesterday (and pretty much most days), I’m grateful for Barney’s companionship during my working day (even if he does spend most of it sleeping).
Gratitude is something I focus on each day, and not just because it’s a primary variable in my Ph.D. Over the years, I’ve seen how gratitude helps. It doesn’t mean ignoring hurt, challenges, or tough emotions. It helps create space, perspective and contentment.
In a classic study, Professors Robert Emmons and Michael McCullough examined the effects of gratitude on well-being. The study randomly placed college students into one of three conditions: gratitude, hassles, or events. Over ten weeks, they kept diaries recording things they were either grateful for, irritated or annoyed about, or just general events that occurred. They also completed a series of surveys monitoring their physical symptoms and well-being. Students in the grateful condition reported significantly greater life satisfaction, greater optimism for the upcoming week, fewer physical symptoms (i.e. aches and pains), and exercised more than students in either the events or hassles conditions.
By being grateful, the students in the gratitude condition could amplify what they felt they had and shift their mindset.
Feeling gratitude doesn’t just elevate well-being in a personal context. It’s relevant at work, too.
Why it matters
When organisations analyse their culture and determine their values, gratitude isn’t a trait that is likely to appear. Yet, more research reveals its significant role in elevating well-being, improving resilience, enhancing relationships and enabling progress, all elements critical in a constantly changing and challenging working world.
Gratitude is a character trait and an emotion. At its core, it is a positive emotion that arises when you are aware of what you have and are thankful for it.
The same researchers Robert Emmons and Michael McCullough (mentioned earlier) define gratitude as a two-step process. Firstly, you recognise that you have obtained a positive outcome. Secondly, you know an external source is responsible for that positive outcome.
I’d go further and suggest that gratitude is part of a broader life orientation, where you notice and appreciate what’s good in the world and what you have. You can think of it as a mental frame of reference that shapes how you see the world and ultimately impacts your thoughts and actions.
How it helps teams
When we are predisposed to being grateful – to focusing on what’s good and what we have – it changes how we process what’s happening around us. Why? Because emotions impact where we focus our attention and what we decide to do.
Practising gratitude in the workplace isn’t about ignoring emotions or feelings of stress, sadness or hurt.
Instead, it’s about equipping leaders and employees with the strategies and mechanisms to cope with challenges and change. So rather than letting a situation overwhelm or consume their every waking thought, they can progress through it.
Gratitude connects with relational aspects and fosters relationships, promoting pro-social behaviour. In practice, this means that more grateful team members have a higher likelihood of helping their colleagues. There’s even research that demonstrates how provoking feelings of gratitude resulted in more idea elaboration and, ultimately, higher creativity.
Where to start
Psychologist and Author Martin Seligman’s work challenged some of the conventional thinking about how positive emotions, such as happiness, gratitude and optimism, can be learned.
His research shows that optimism is a learned trait. He said: “Optimistic people generally feel that good things will last a long time and will have a beneficial effect on everything they do. And they think that bad things are isolated: They won’t last too long and won’t affect other parts of life“.
His work with the US Army helping returning soldiers deal with the effects of Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD) demonstrated that providing resilience and positive psychology training can lower rates of PTSD, substance abuse and depression.
A key element in his training is getting participants to cultivate a daily gratitude practice. This practice has been proven to help rewire the brain’s frame of reference over time. It is a simple process where, at the end of each day, a person writes down three things they are grateful for and why.
Build the habit
Leaders can adopt this practice in the workplace. As part of team meetings, build in reflective activities where the team focuses on where they have made progress and what they are grateful for.
Encourage your team to reflect on what went well and why. It is best to write your gratitude reflections down and, where possible, make the practice habitual (even daily). Remember, the achievement doesn’t have to be huge. It can be as simple as – I had a good client meeting, meetings ran on time today, or I completed an essential task.
Establish core rituals in the team where team members are encouraged to focus on what they can do for others. When you do something unexpectedly nice for someone else, it kicks off your brain’s happy chemicals – making you feel good. As part of this, focus on how you express gratitude when someone helps you. A thank you goes a long way and is an important part of the gratitude process.
Lastly, cultivate an environment where relationships matter. If you’re the leader, devote time to relationships every day. No matter the role you hold, make the connections at work meaningful. Be open about what you are grateful for and your gratitude for the person who you are working with.
Practising gratitude isn’t a one-off activity. For best results, you’ll want to focus on it each day.
So, how are you going to fertilise your mind today?