The Transforming Power of Gratitude


Is gratitude truly beneficial, or is it simply a nice virtue our mothers taught us? 

You may recall a similar experience… “What do you say?” Mom gently spurred me on when, as a little child, someone gave me a gift. Of course, “Thank you!” was always the proper response. Is expressing thanks an appropriate response in our organizations?

I have always thought that to be true, but in one organization where I served, gratitude was not a practice. When I asked why people never said “Thank you”, the response was that it was not necessary; people did not need to receive thanks for work they were required or expected to do. Is that true?

Dr. Ray Wheeler (blog) says that “Gratitude is a virtue that contributes to living well. It is an emotional state and an affective trait demonstrated in behavior and as such it has tremendous potential for engaging change in how a person experiences life or determines the meaning of their circumstance. It is a positive emotion that has more recently captured the imagination and eye of researchers because of the mediating role gratitude plays in other positive emotions and overall mental health.”

How powerful is gratitude?

Gratitude is a transforming agent in our personal development, our relationships and our organizations.

First, gratitude changes me. Robert Emmons and Michael McCullough are two of the leading American investigators of gratitude. Researchers find that people who experience and express gratitude are often happier, healthier and more energetic; they experience fewer headaches, stomach-ache, nausea, loneliness, stress, anxiety and depression.  Experiencing and expressing gratitude activates positive emotion centers in the brain. Regular practice of gratitude can change the way our brain neurons fire into more positive, automatic patterns. The positive emotions soothe distress and broaden our thinking patterns so we develop a larger and more expansive view of our lives. Fredrickson (1998) found that positive emotions like gratitude deepen and broaden our thought-action repertoire. A thought-action repertoire is like a personal toolbox. Many negative emotions narrow individuals’ thought–action repertoires by calling forth limited action tendencies (e.g., attack, flee).  That is like a toolbox with two tools – fight or flight.  On the other hand, positive emotions develop broader thought–action repertoires, prompting us to pursue a wider range of thoughts and actions (a larger toolbox of thoughts and behaviors).

Gratitude transforms our relationships. Gratitude is an emotion of connectedness and relatedness, which reminds us we are part of a larger universe. Cultivating thankfulness is one practice to avoid becoming a self-absorbed, narcissistic leader.  Narcissistic people possess an inflated view of themselves and a deflated view of others.  They are self-sufficient and view gratitude as an unnecessary emotion. No wonder our mothers labored to cultivate thankfulness in us as children! When we express gratitude we acknowledge that we are not self-sufficient, and that the actions of others are beneficial to us.

Third, gratitude is great for business. Experiments on the cognitive and behavioral effects have demonstrated that positive emotions like gratitude lead to patterns of thought that are creative in problem solving (Isen, Daubman, & Nowicki, 1987), flexible (Isen & Daubman, 1984), significantly broadened and diverse (Isen, Johnson, Mertz, & Robinson, 1985), integrative (Isen, Rosenzweig, & Young, 1991), open to information (Estrada, Isen, & Young, 1997), and efficient (Isen & Means, 1983Isen et al., 1991). People experiencing positive emotions also manifest a greater preference for variety and broader arrays of behavioral interests (Cunningham, 1988Kahn & Isen, 1993). Positive emotions like gratitude produce a “broad, flexible, cognitive organization and ability to integrate diverse material” (Isen, 1990, p. 89).

5 Simple Practices to Cultivate Gratitude

1.  Say “Thank you”: Look for opportunities to express gratitude to others every day. The simple act of saying “thank you” will connect you to others and can have an impact beyond the moment.

2.  Write a family member, friend or coworker. Martin Seligman, researcher, teacher and author, asked his students to write letters of gratitude to significant individuals in their lives and read their letters out loud to the recipients. This assignment not only fostered increased feelings of joy, but closer meaning and pleasure derived from the relationship.

3.  Look for the good in situations, not just what is wrong. Turn off the local news if it is focused on reporting the negative.  There are plenty of people doing positive things—you just have to look for them.

4.  Count your blessings. When Seligman’s students were asked to write down five things for which they felt grateful, once a week, for 10 weeks, they reported feeling less stressed, more content, optimistic and satisfied with their life. Some people find that keeping a gratitude journal helps to remember the blessings.

5.  Thank God. Say a prayer to thank God for the blessings in your life. 1 Thessalonians 5:18 reminds us to give thanks in every situation, for this is the will of God. Perhaps God knew long ago what research is just uncovering: gratitude is a transforming agent in our lives, in our relationships and in our organizations!

What is one thing for which you are grateful?  What helps you cultivate gratitude?

Related posts you might enjoy:

  1. Learning to be thankful 
  2. 5 Great Gifts
  3. Givers and Takers
  4. Focus on Roots, not the Fruits

Sources:

Emmons, R., McCullough, M. Counting blessings versus burdens: an experimental investigation of gratitude and subjective well-being in daily life.  Journal of personality and social psychology, February 2003. http://greatergood.berkeley.edu/pdfs/GratitudePDFs/6Emmons-BlessingsBurdens.pdf  accessed on November 20, 2012.

Frederickson, B. (2004). The broaden-and-build theory of positive emotions http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC1693418/  accessed on November 19, 2012.

Fredrickson, B.( 2001). The role of positive emotions in positive psychology: The broaden and-build theory of positive emotions. American Psychologist.  http://www.unc.edu/peplab/publications/Fredrickson_AmPsych_2001.pdf   accessed November 17, 2012.

Fredrickson, B. (1998) What Good are Positive Emotions http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC3156001/  accessed on November 17, 2012.

Greenberg, M. http://www.psychologytoday.com/blog/the-mindful-self-express/201111/the-seven-best-gratitude-quotes  accessed on November 17, 2012.

Wheeler, R. (2011). Mom was right, gratitude is necessary for success http://raywheeler.wordpress.com/2011/11/11/mom-was-right-gratitude-is-necessary-for-success/  accessed on November 16, 2012.

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About Steve Morgan

I work in Global Leadership Development with Cru with my wife, Terry. We have been married 30 years and have 4 grown children. We have a Masters in Global Leadership together through Azusa Pacific University. I generally write about 5 “L’s: Living Well, Loving Deeply, Learning Continuously, Leading Courageously and Leaving a Legacy. I occasionally write about Laughing Loudly. Subscribe on the right side to receive an email whenever there is a new post. I invite you to leave your comments so we can dialogue on the various topics and learn from each other. If you are new to the site, you might start with looking at some of the top posts or doing a search on the right side bar for one of the 5 “L’s” that interest you. Or you can view the blog archives for topics. Photo Credit: sarahjoellephotography.com
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11 Responses to The Transforming Power of Gratitude

  1. Pingback: Is Your Immune System Working for You? - The KonTerra Group

    • Steve Morgan says:

      Thanks for the link. Good article also. I have experienced the same benefits you mentioned of having a coach. I made little progress in my personal development plan until I engaged with a coach. How did you come across my blog?

  2. It is amazing how much social capital can be won with gratitude – well said Steve!

    • Steve Morgan says:

      Thanks Ray. Thank you for your inspiration! I started reading your draft of the book. I couldn’t wait to get get a sneak peek. I am thinking it could be used for a text book for a leadership class!

  3. Pingback: Use your time wisely — you don't have as much of it as you think! - TalentCulture

  4. Pingback: Use Your Time Wisely — You Don't Have As Much Of It As You Think! - TalentCulture

  5. Pingback: Is Your Immune System Working for You? | The Konterra Group

    • Steve Morgan says:

      Thanks for the link on gratitude! Loved reading about personal change and what obstacles keep us from becoming better people and leaders. I am going to check out some more of the posts on “clarity” and resilience”. Thanks for visiting my blog. Looking forward to continued learning. Happy New Year!

  6. Pingback: Boost Your Resilience with Gratutide | Leader Impact

  7. Pingback: Don’t Make Gratitude About Yourself | Leader Impact

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