No matter your background or affiliation, 2016 has been a bumpy ride. There have been days that it’s honestly been difficult to be grateful about anything. But as we enter Thanksgiving week in the United States, it’s important to honor gratitude and thanksgiving (as an action, not a day on the calendar) as critically important activities … not to mention ones that can improve your professional life.
For the past several years, this blog has shared information about gratitude in the workplace during November. This year, we have compiled 16 “bite-sized” bits of information about the practice of gratitude, for you to think about and digest while you’re preparing or enjoying the holiday, and put into practice in December and throughout all of 2017.
Be thankful throughout your job hunt. It takes a lot of support during an intensive job search to keep one’s spirits up, as well as access practical things like referrals or inside information about a potential employer. In addition to sending a mailed letter (or at least an email) to your interview team, it’s a great idea to thank those who send job referrals your way, your references, and anyone else who’s played a significant role in your search.
Gratitude can reduce tension in the office. If you are feeling off-balance and on-edge at the office, expressing thankfulness can go a long way toward defusing the tension. C. Nathan DeWall, a professor at the University of Kentucky, led a study that demonstrated that cultivating gratitude reduced aggression by enhancing people’s sense of empathy toward others.
Little things mean a lot. You don’t have to break the bank to show gratitude, either to your professional and personal network or to your boss, clients or co-workers. For your network connections who’ve helped you this year, Zen Habits has a nice list of 30 low- or no-cost gift ideas, most of which are good for any time of the year. For work mates, you can leave a thank you message on a sticky note, offer to do a chore or an errand for them, or stop by to chat for a moment at a time when you both need a break.
There are so many ways to “pay it forward.” In the workplace, sometimes the best way to thank someone for being good to you is to do good things for others. A short list of things you can do to pay forward a good deed include: help others with building skills or subject matter knowledge, make introductions (live or electronic) between people who “need to know each other,” and mentoring someone who can benefit from your experience and expertise.
People need people. The positive results from cultivating a grateful disposition, especially in the workplace, are greatly amplified if those practicing gratitude focus on people, and not “things” (pleasant weather, lucky breaks, etc.). As As Jeremy Adam Smith writes on the Greater Good blog of the Greater Good Science Center at University of California-Berkeley: "[A gratitude practice] will work best if it encourages the 'thank you' to target actual human beings instead of things. We are all thankful for coffee, for example, but the gratitude should go to Mary, the administrative assistant who makes the coffee every morning."
Share your gratitude publicly. Practicing gratitude is powerful. Writing it down in a journal is even more so. Sharing it with the recipient, or even better yet, a group to which you both belong, can be transformational. One way to facilitate public thankfulness is to start a “kudos board” (either physically at your office site or online) that allows employees to share their gratitude and be specific about what the recipient did “right.”
Don’t fake it. Like forgiveness, gratitude is something that doesn’t work very well when it is forced or demanded. If you’re wanting to be more grateful, but just not really feeling comfortable with it, one issue maybe the degree of ambivalence in your style of emotional expression. Whether you’re naturally reserved or effusive, if you feel self-conscious or conflicted about it, you may have trouble reaping the rewards of gratitude. The solution? Work on the ambivalence, then tackle the gratitude issue.
Gratitude lists can help you reach other goals. If you’re wondering why you should focus on gratitude when you could just as easily take the time you’re spending to work on other important personal goals, consider the research of Robert Emmons, professor of psychology at the University of California, Davis. A study run by Emmons found that participants who kept gratitude lists were more likely to have made progress toward important personal goals (academic, interpersonal and health-based) over a two-month period compared to subjects in the other experimental conditions.
Stories of gratitude are everywhere. Sometimes it helps to prime the pump of gratitude by watching, listening and reading stories about gratitude. The Greater Good Science Center has covered the science of gratitude for more than a decade, and media companies such as Upworthy often include positive stories that touch upon feelings of thankfulness or gratitude.
Teach your children well. The Greater Good Science Center also oversees a research project designed to measure and promote gratitude in children in adolescents. The Youth Gratitude Project is part of the center’s multi-year project Expanding the Science and Practice of Gratitude. The work appears to be important, because existing research in this field shows that grateful youth, compared to their less grateful counterparts, are happier, more satisfied with their lives, and report more hope, engagement with their hobbies, higher GPAs, and less envy, depression, and materialism.
This is your brain on gratitude. More than your heart is impacted by gratitude - it can actually change your brain’s activity! A study conducted at Indiana University among persons who had participated in a “gratitude intervention” showed activity in a range of brain areas in the frontal, parietal, and occipital regions when they underwent a brain scan. Participants who’d completed the gratitude task months earlier not only reported feeling more gratefulness two weeks after the task than members of the control group, but also, months later, showed more gratitude-related brain activity in the scanner.
Build better relationships with gratitude. While it may seem sort of intuitive that practicing gratitude might improve one’s relationships, the “how” of this process was not clear to researchers. However a 2011 study recapping two experiments by researchers at Gonzaga and Northeastern universities revealed that gratitude promotes social affiliation, leading one to choose to spend time with a benefactor and that gratitude strengthens relationships by promoting socially inclusive behaviours toward the recipient of the gratitude, even if it comes at a cost the benefactor.
Build better relationships with gratitude, part 2. The social benefits of expressing gratitude in the workplace are becoming better documented,as well! A study published in 2015 in the International Business Research showed that collective gratitude is important for organizations. Among other things, said researchers, gratitude can reduce turnover intention, foster employees’ organizational commitment, lead to positive organizational outcomes, and help in “eliminating the toxic workplace emotions, attitudes and negative emotions such as envy, anger and greed in today’s highly competitive work environment.”
Gratitude isn’t always the right answer. As has been mentioned several times in this post (as well as the gratitude posts on this blog in previous years), practicing gratitude is not a panacea for all ills and can backfire. The Greater Good Science Center cautions against overdosing on gratitude (i.e., constantly looking for things to be thankful for), focusing on people or events that really aren’t worthy of your thanks, or using gratitude to mask a serious problem (with attendant unhappy emotions) that needs your attention. In other words: if gratitude isn’t coming for you, don’t force it. Pay attention to what you DO feel, and attend to that.
Thankfulness leads to happiness. Gratitude certainly has a good reputation in our society, but it’s perhaps icing on the cake (or dressing in the turkey?) that it can also make you feel happier. Dr. Sonja Lyubomirsky, a professor in the Department of Psychology at the University of California, Riverside, and author of “The How of Happiness,” reports that gratitude can promote happiness because it promotes the savoring of positive life experiences, bolsters self-worth and self-esteem, helps build social bonds, inhibits harmful comparisons and diminishes or deters negative feelings such as anger, bitterness, and greed.
Leading with gratitude. Since most of these “servings” have related to career or workplace relationships, it’s perhaps important for the final serving (“dessert”?) to end with a plea for leaders to model the type of grateful work environment they wish to cultivate. If the workplace in question has not had a history of expressing gratitude, it can be game-changing for bosses to take time to clearly, consistently and authentically say “thank you” in both public and private settings. It’s especially important to seek out those who tend to never get thanked (think: people with the non-glamorous tasks that actually keep the organization moving) and express appreciation on a regular basis.
The questions to you:
- How do you express gratitude in your professional life?
- Have you ever been the recipient of a powerful expression of gratitude in your workplace? What happened?