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Dr. Carr's Corner

The Powerful Ways Gratitude Impacts Your Life

In the US, Thanksgiving marks a celebration and expression of gratitude. On a personal level, for many, it is a time to acknowledge the positive aspects in our lives, such as your basic needs being met and things that matter most — friends, community, family, and loved ones.

Gratitude is an appreciation and acknowledgment, whether tangible or intangible, of the goodness in our life. It helps us connect to something larger than ourselves — transcendent, to other people, the community, our purpose, our faith, and it has the power to reshape our neural pathways. Several studies have found that when you cultivate gratitude, you are more likely to be happy, cope more successfully and improve your relationships with the people you love. You feel more positive emotions, gain more insight from your life experiences, improve health, manage adversity, and build stronger relationships. It is a human characteristic that fundamentally supports your ability to work in social groups — to be collaborative, respecting, and valuing others. We are also less likely to get stressed or depressed, better process negative experiences, and engage in fewer negative coping behaviors such as substance abuse.

Research shows that gratitude helps us refocus on what we have instead of what we lack. And, although it may feel contrived at first, this positive mental state grows stronger with practice. When we express gratitude, we affirm our interdependence with others, and when we receive gratitude from others, we are infused with purpose and motivation.

So how can we grow this muscle of gratitude?

Keep a Gratitude Journal

Make it a habit to write down or share thoughts about the gifts you’ve received each day with a loved one. Keep a list of the people and things you’re grateful for. When something you’re thankful for pops into your head, jot it down. You might be thinking about your family, your dog, the wonderful carry-out your partner picked up, or the roof above your head. Whatever it is, take the time to write it down.

Why It Matters 

Gratitude has almost endless benefits, from better sleep to less stress. Keeping a gratitude log will support you in gaining these benefits and act as a reminder on days when it’s harder to remember all the things that are going well. Journaling can also be a place that gives you a better sense and control of your inner voice at a time when so much control is out of one’s hands. It can be a place to question and acknowledge experiences and gain meaning. And to create an emotional pivot to a state that better serves you.

Take a Personal Inventory and Reflect on a Major Milestone

Use the day of or the night before Thanksgiving to take a personal inventory of the year to date. Look through your photos in your camera roll, postings, important texts, or emails you saved. Try to reflect on and uncover new things to be thankful for — identifying those moments you tend to forget, acknowledging the good and bad, sometimes there are loops to close.
Consider a major event (or two) that positively changed the course of your life. How did it affect you, and what insights can you gain from this milestone? What do you appreciate about this event?

Why It Matters 

It’s human nature to become used to achievements, so much so that we may fail to feel grateful for them. Imagining how our lives might be different without those successes helps to re-surface appreciation for the good in our lives. Celebrating what’s right with ‘our’ world helps us recognize the possibilities and find solutions for many of the challenges before us. A great Ted Talk by Dewitt Jones on why it matters!

Acknowledge and Let Go of the Bad

Acknowledging the positive aspects in your life may be challenging for you; particularly, when you focus or hold on to negative emotions like frustration, anger, and resentment. To help you release negative emotions, you may find the Hawaiian practice Hoʻoponopono helpful. This traditional practice has four simple steps: Repentance, Forgiveness, Gratitude, and Love.

To practice, simply bring to your awareness a difficult situation or person you are holding on to a negative emotion. As you visualize the situation or person, repeat in your mind and affirm “I’m sorry,” “Please forgive me,” “Thank you,” and “I love you.” Let go of the need to find blame, be gentle, and refrain from judging yourself.

Continue the practice for 5 – 10 minutes. Do this every day for a few weeks, and you will experience a shift in your heart and be more open and receptive to the good graces in your life.

Why it Matters 

To be grateful in your current state, it is helpful to acknowledge negative experiences that may keep you from experiencing gratitude. Regular practice of forgiveness or reconciliation can help you open your heart and mind to the many blessings in your life and let go of the negative.

Meditate | Pray

Mindfulness meditation involves focusing on the present moment without judgment. Although people often focus on a word or phrase (such as “peace”), it is also possible to focus on what you’re grateful for (the warmth of the sun, a pleasant sound, etc.). “Buddhist monks begin each day with a chant of gratitude for the blessings of their life. Native American elders begin each ceremony with grateful prayers to mother earth and father sky, the four directions, the animal, plant, and mineral brothers and sisters who share our earth and support our life. These examples show that gratitude meditation is neither new nor restricted to one spiritual or religious movement.

Why it Matters 

Gratitude meditation has several benefits, many of which overlap with the benefits of gratitude in general, such as increased levels of well-being, decreased levels of depression, and improved sleep quality. You can try out one here: Gratitude meditation.

How can leaders cultivate a more positive work environment through a lens of gratitude?

“Cultivate the habit of being grateful for every good thing that comes to you and to give thanks continuously. And because all things have contributed to your advancement, you should include all things in your gratitude.” — Ralph Waldo Emerson.

All people have the innate desire to feel appreciated and valued by others. Research on gratitude and appreciation demonstrates that when employees feel valued, they have high job satisfaction, have productive relationships, and are motivated to do their best. Our research identified that feelings of dignity and belongingness at work, when aligned with one’s purpose, led to the highest levels of engagement and lowest levels of intention to leave an organization.

Gratitude can be the gateway to strengthening other leadership skills such as better emotional regulation and authentic relationships leading to emotionally intelligent and empathetic workplaces, where employees practice compassion and forgiveness.

So why is it so hard to create a culture of gratitude?

Business cultures, pressures, and distractions can erect barriers to the practice of gratitude. As humans, we tend to be hard-wired to focus on the negative and slide our attention past the positive. In his book Hardwiring Happiness, Rick Hanson suggests that “The mind is like Velcro for negative experiences and Teflon for positive ones.” As leaders, we tend to focus on what’s not working, what’s wrong with processes, poor results, and performance versus what’s right. We have developed industries around the root cause of failure, process improvement, 6-sigma, which are important but perhaps not as much as our understanding of the root causes of success and greater well-being!

Many managers find communicating appreciation complicated. Some have trouble balancing it with developmental feedback and fear sending mixed messages to employees.

How can we appreciate the people, process, and leadership elements that lead to excellence and success more?

Often managers use recognition and appreciation interchangeably. Recognition is often used as a surrogate for gratitude, and leaders feel they may be appreciating their teams through their use of recognition. Research also shows a large difference between how much managers appreciated employees and how appreciated employees felt. While they’re both important, there’s a big difference between them. It’s important for leaders to understand this difference to support teams that thrive in cultures of engagement, loyalty, and high performance.

In simple terms, recognition is about what people do; appreciation is about who they are.

Appreciation is about acknowledging a person’s inherent value, and the point isn’t to highlight their work accomplishments but their worth as a colleague and human being. And Gratitude goes a step further; it recognizes how the positive things in our lives — like success at work — are often due to forces outside of ourselves, particularly other people’s efforts.

Some Tips Leaders Can Try

  1. Check-in with your team regularly: Take time to check in with your team regularly. These interactions are valuable points of connection for your team (and for you). They are opportunities to strengthen feelings of inclusion and belonging and reduce isolation or disconnectedness in today’s environment. Hearing ‘Good morning’ or ‘How are you?’ from a manager can be as meaningful as formal recognition. Appreciating how they are in the moment and providing support
  2. Be Authentic: Gratitude needs to be specific and genuine. Meaningful expressions of gratitude are timely, relevant, and sincere, and expressions that come off as superficial may lead to a less desirable effect.
  3. Open up your availability: In addition to regular check-ins, being available when your team needs you is a great way to demonstrate your gratitude and how much you value them. Be present and fully engaged.
  4. Start Meetings with Gratitude: At the start of a meeting, ask people to share something they are grateful for. This practice helps people get to know each other better and become more present and less stressed. Research shows that gratitude elicits positive emotions that shift our biology, lower blood pressure, and release dopamine and oxytocin, enabling us to be more open to new ideas and change.
  5. Look for the Impact: Several studies show that when we can see the impact of our efforts on others, we can feel gratitude and enjoy the many health benefits it provides. Leaders can help make the connection between their team’s day-to-day activities, the success of the organization, and the impact it’s having in the world. Think about the “voice of the customer’ and share customer impact stories. Provide opportunities to share personal volunteerism activities or consider a team-based effort.
  6. Make expressing gratitude to others a regular practice: Consider using online tools or smartphone apps for coworker appreciation. Create a space for kudos and build time into project meetings for people to appreciate others, particularly for something accomplished that week, such as a key contributor to a milestone, a unique perspective, and a creative or innovation approach.

Research shows that gratitude and appreciation contribute to a positive team climate and a higher trust and engagement level — an environment in which team members value one another’s contributions, care about one another’s wellbeing, and have input into how the team carries out its work.
We all have the ability and opportunity to cultivate gratitude. Simply take a few moments to focus on all you have –appreciate what’s right in the world around you. Developing an “attitude of gratitude” is one of the simplest ways to gain more meaning and satisfaction with life.

References

References:
1. Algoe, Sara B.; Fredrickson, Barbara L.; Gable, Shelly L. “The social functions of the emotion of gratitude via expression.” Emotion, (2013) 13(4), 605-609.
2. Emmons, R.A., McCullough, M.E. “Counting blessings versus burdens: An experimental investigation of gratitude and subjective well-being in daily life.” Journal of Personality and Social Psychology. (2003) 84(2), 377-389.
3. Gordon, A.M.; Impett, E.A.; Kogan, A.; Oveis, C.; Keltner, D. “To have and to hold: Gratitude promotes relationship maintenance in intimate bonds. “ Journal of Personality and Social Psychology (2012) 03(2) 257-274.
4. Grant, A. M.; Gino, F. “A little thanks goes a long way: Explaining why gratitude expressions motivate prosocial behavior.” Journal of Personality and Social Psychology. (2010) 98(6), 946-955.
5. Allen, Summer. “ The Science of Gratitude” https://ggsc.berkeley.edu/images/uploads/GGSC-JTF_White_Paper-Gratitude-FINAL.pdf
6. The Gratitude Concept: https://thegratitudeconcept.com/the-science-of-gratitude/
7. Emmons, Robert, “10 Ways to be More Grateful” UC, Davis:
8. HBR: The little things that make employees feel appreciated

About the Author

Bob Carr Leadership Photo

Robert Carr, MD, MPH, FACPM

Chief Medical Officer, Kumanu

Robert Carr was most recently Senior Vice President & Corporate Medical Director at GlaxoSmithKline and on the faculty at Georgetown University. He received his Doctor of Medicine from the University of Miami School of Medicine and his Masters of Public Health and Preventive Medicine Residency from the John Hopkins Bloomberg School of Hygiene and Public Health. Bob also served as the President of the American College of Preventive Medicine

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