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The BIG IDEA—The research is very clear that gratitude changes your brain chemistry and wiring, your leadership results, your physical health, and the health of your organization.

Gratitude is like a plant

I love and appreciate my wife deeply, she is an amazing partner and teammate for life. And she is gifted at many things—but gardening isn’t one of them.

She has the opposite of a green thumb.

She’s like the Doctor Kevorkian of gardeners—many of our houseplants over the years have died from a kind of assisted suicide.

Weeks would go by and she would forget to water them.

Plants die without daily or weekly watering—and gratitude works the same way.

Gratitude is like a plant that wilts when it isn’t tended to on a daily or weekly basis.

Modern neuroscience research confirms this. The human brain is sometimes bombarded with up to two billion bits of information at one time, and a part of the brain called the reticular activating system (RAS) acts as a filter that helps us determine what is important to pay attention to.

How does your RAS know what to pay attention to?

To a large degree, you tell it what is important. I will include an awesome YouTube link at the bottom which describes how this works.

We literally have to train our brains what to pay attention to.

The more we tell ourselves “everything is hopeless,” the more our RAS looks for things in our environment to confirm our belief that things are hopeless. Then our belief gets stronger, and looks for even more data to confirm our belief.

It can be a vicious cycle of searching and confirming.

But it works with positive things too.

Groups at the VA Hospital

I first learned about the importance of gratitude lists while leading meth recovery groups at the VA hospital in Reno, Nevada.

A group member had just lost his job due to relapse and was feeling particularly depressed. One of his peers—a former member of a motorcycle gang who had turned his life around was not one to sugar-coat things—“Sounds like it’s time for a gratitude list.”

His comment landed with a harsh thud, but immediately snapped his peer right out of self-pity.

He brought his gratitude list back the following week. Listening to him was a powerful reminder to the entire group that we get to choose what we pay attention to.

In the recovery community, gratitude lists are considered essential for survival, mindset, and shifting perspective.

In fact, a huge meta-analysis in 2009 summarized 49 studies on the effects of positive psychology interventions (link at bottom) and found that gratitude journaling was a powerful factor in overall well-being and a great defense against depression.

The famous psychologist Martin Seligman who largely pioneered the Positive Psychology movement conducted extensive research in the 1990s and found that practicing gratitude was one of the 7 essential habits of happy people.

Gratitude is also closely linked to optimism, which has been shown to improve immune function, prevent chronic disease, and help you cope with stressful life events. Optimism research is even shown to reduce the risk of early death! (link at bottom)

Gratitude is vital for leadership

Can you imagine a great leader who never thanked anyone?

Stop and imagine for a moment a boss you had who rarely thanked you for anything. Chances are you don’t work there anymore.

Research has shown that the number one reason people leave jobs is the direct supervisor. And a primary factor is this—people who feel unappreciated leave.

If you don’t keep good people around you by expressing your gratitude, your leadership will be extremely weak. And you need to model it if you want your team to do it.

If you are weak on gratitude, you must learn to make it part of your DNA—for your health, your family relationships, and your workplace impact.

Multiple studies have suggested that just establishing a “thank you culture” is a powerful factor for productivity and profit. One study from the University of Pennsylvania found that leaders who thanked their teams more frequently generated 50% more fundraising calls.

The Great Place to Work Institute lists “showing appreciation and recognition” as one of the nine factors in making the Forbes list of top 100 places to work!

The following are benefits of gratitude at work:

  • Increases productivity
  • Improves employee well-being
  • Gratitude is contagious and spreads
  • Increases job satisfaction
  • Lowers burnout and exhaustion
  • Reduces absences and turnover
  • Increases employee engagement
  • Can reduce employee gossip and cynicism

As if this wasn’t enough evidence, research indicates that gratitude is a powerful factor in changing your brain chemistry and rewiring your brain.

When someone thanks you for something meaningful, your brain releases dopamine and serotonin. Haven’t you experienced this? It can be powerful, emotional, and overwhelming.

The famous neuroscientist Antonio Damasio said—“We are not thinking machines that feel, but emotional machines that think.” Consider this deeply as you lead people.

In our culture, we are often way too focused on comparison and what others have. But gratitude refocuses us on what we do have, instead of what we don’t have.

I don’t know about you, but I need that reminder every single day.

And it goes without saying that gratitude also works wonders in marriage and parenting.

Turn information into action:

Pick one of these things to do today, then make it a habit:

  1. Thank every member on your team for something specific.
  2. Establish a gratitude ritual around the family dinner table.
  3. Make the longest gratitude list you can come up with.
  4. Before bed, ask your partner for “two wins” from their day.
  5. If you pray, begin every morning with a prayer of thanksgiving before asking for anything else.

Have a great weekend!


*If you have enjoyed Parker’s blog, check out The Next Peak Podcast that Parker co-hosts. We interview successful leaders and discuss research-based principles that help people win in the workplace without compromising the things that matter most—relationships, a life of purpose, and health.

Suggested Resources


Dr. Parker Houston

Parker Houston

Dr. Parker Houston is a licensed clinical psychologist and board-certified in organizational psychology. He is also certified in personal and executive coaching. Parker's personal mission is to share science-based principles of psychology and timeless spiritual practices, to help people improve the way they lead themselves, their families, and their organizations. *Opinions expressed are the author's own.
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