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What Happens When You Are Grateful?

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“If you concentrate on finding whatever is good in every situation, you will discover that your life will suddenly be filled with gratitude,  a feeling that nurtures the soul.” ~ Rabbi Harold Kushner

Gratitude on one level is a social contract. You did something for me, so I will do something for you by expressing my thanks. Gratitude is also a moral act, an expression of empathy for someone who has decided to help you. Saying “thank you” to your team has economic rewards. Expressing your gratitude is one of the easiest ways to raise their enthusiasm, commitment, and productivity. 

But when you say “thank you,” you also increase your own overall well-being. Gratitude is more than a social, moral, or economic contract: it is a major component of physical and emotional health.

TIP: As a leader, make sure that your gratitude extends past the star members of your team to embrace those who offer support—the ones who enable the star players to shine.


The Physical and Emotional Effects of Gratitude and Ingratitude

The act of being grateful—of looking for things to be grateful about—increases your resilience, happiness, health, and ability to find things to be grateful about. Gratitude reverberates through your own system, improving your physical and mental health, relationships, empathy, sleep, and self-esteem among other benefits. 

Gratitude lights up the brain: one experiment showed that feeling grateful caused activity in the anterior cingulate cortex and medial prefrontal cortex, areas associated with moral cognition and positive emotion. The hypothalamus is also affected, reducing levels stress and increasing energy. When you are grateful, your brain releases dopamine and oxytocin, the feel-good chemicals. Gratefulness increases social bonding, trust, and empathy. 

The ability to be grateful helps you to overlook the irritations and regrets of life, including negative emotions (however justified) like victimization and blame. Indeed, the less gratitude you feel or express, the fewer occasions will arise for gratitude: every “thank you” increases the chances that givers will give again, both to you and to others, and that you will recognize the gift. The inability to express gratitude has been linked to a high level of stress, materialism, envy, and a sense of entitlement—if you are always dissatisfied, you never experience gratitude for what you have now.

The positive impact of a single act of gratitude and thankfulness counters all these negatives and the effects often last months.

TIP: Gratitude helps you focus on the moment: this is what you are grateful for. That ability to see what is happening now enables you to be a more innovative, strategic thinker, taking the time to make connections that others overlook because they rush past.


Ways to Express Gratitude

You do not need to wait for someone to do something before you feel or express gratitude. You can summon gratitude in other ways:

  • Exercise mindfulness. When you are mindful, you begin to see all the opportunities around you to be grateful, if only for the peace that comes with exercising mindfulness!
  • Reach out to someone in the past. Do you still remember someone who helped you in the past? Did you think them then or only realize afterward how much their help meant? Reach out to them to express your gratitude. A few words (“Thank you for….”) will mean a lot to both of you.
  • Reach out to someone in the present. Every day, our friends, family, and coworkers perform acts of kindness, from joining us for lunch to washing the dishes. When we stop taking those acts for granted—or building resentment over our own unacknowledged acts—we share and inspire gratitude.
  • Imagine gratefulness. Sometimes we miss the opportunity to say “thank you” and cannot recover it. Imagine what you would say if the opportunity arose. 
  • Pass it on. Being grateful allows you to see how similar acts on your own part would be appreciated by others. When you help someone else, you are also thanking the person who helped you.
  • Make a list. At a regular time each day, perhaps before you go to sleep, list 2 or 3 things you were grateful for during the day. One study showed that keeping a gratefulness journal for just 13 days almost doubled the feeling of gratitude—while those who kept track of life’s hassles listed more and more irritants.
  • Forgive. Like mindfulness, forgiving tends to increase your ability to be grateful. You are letting go of a negative emotion and creating room for a positive emotion. Forgiveness is difficult, but the gift of forgiveness is worth being grateful for.
  • Focus outward. Look for the good in other people; look for the good in relationships, situations, and experiences. 
  • Express gratitude. Seek opportunities to say “thank you.” Elaborate expressions of gratitude are not necessary and often overwhelm the recipient with a feeling of obligation. Small but genuine gifts, acts of service, or simple touch go further in expressing your gratitude to others.

TIP: Mindful leaders recognize the achievements of others, and truly grateful leaders also recognize their own achievements. Being grateful for your successes allows you to enjoy and reflect upon them.


Cautions about Gratitude

People experience gratitude toward acts that require a genuine effort and fulfill their needs. Conversely, if someone acts insincerely for self-promotion or other selfish reasons, the recipients will be hard-pressed to experience sincere gratitude. 

In the midst of tragic or stressful events, you may not be able to summon gratitude and you should never usurp gratitude on behalf of other people. The following examples are attempts to force gratitude on others:

  • A wife dies just before her 50th anniversary. A relative tells the husband, “Be grateful that she’s in a better place.”
  • A woman loses her job, the family’s main source of income. A friend says, “Be grateful that you still have your family.”
  • A boy loses a beloved toy. His parent says, “Look, we bought you a brand new toy and it’s even better. Say thank you.”

These statements, however well meant, invalidate the experience and feelings of the individual who is suffering trauma and loss. After a terrible earthquake in Indonesia, for example, researchers found that it took an average of 8 months for gratitude to make a positive impact. Regardless of how much gratitude people expressed immediately after the event (for their own survival, the survival of others, the help they were given), it still took time for gratitude to affect their physical and emotional health. Post-traumatic stress, including a feeling of hopelessness, is a powerful adversary.

Each of us must come to our own true gratitude, in our own time.

Moments and People to be Grateful For

Just as we all need time to feel grateful, we all have our own internal guide for what makes us grateful. Indeed, each act of gratitude makes us more aware of what makes us grateful: what is important to us and what brings us joy. Yet, sometimes we need a little guidance in finding things to be grateful for. You might ask yourself:

  • Has anyone in your family ever helped you? In what way?
  • Has anyone on your team or in your company helped you lately?
  • Do your friends contribute to your friendship? In what way?
  • What has your team accomplished lately?
  • Has anything been made easier for you because of your family, friends, or workmates?
  • What skill do you have that gives you pleasure?
  • Where do you find enjoyment?
  • What have the people you dislike taught you? For example, what have you learned from bad leaders?
  • What new knowledge have you acquired lately?
  • Have you made or are you planning to make a special purchase?
  • What past experience makes you laugh?
  • Who would you call if your car stalled on the road? If you lost all your keys? If you needed a favor?

You may find in the answers that you have more experiences, belongings, and above all people to be grateful for than you ever imagined.

Key Takeaways

Gratitude has benefits not only for the recipient but for the giver, in increased physical and emotional health, stronger relationships, and a greater capacity to see and experience reasons to be grateful. You can increase your sense of gratitude if you exercise mindfulness and give yourself time; even imagining the act of thanking others will open you up to gratitude. 

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