Thanksgiving is a natural time of the year to refocus on gratitude practices, so I am updating this post on the science of gratitude.
We are also in a series on Mindset, and you cannot develop the mindset of a champion without gratitude.
During the current global pandemic, it’s easy to focus on all the things we don’t have. There is a lot of loss, and real grief.
But gratitude is a vital process of disciplining your mind to pay attention to the right things—which takes effort and intentionality. And it has never been more important.
I don’t know about you, but I need all the help I can get to keep my mental well-being strong during this challenging time, and gratitude practices can help a lot.
The BIG IDEA—Gratitude is an essential component of your personal leadership strategy. The research is clear that gratitude can change your brain chemistry and wiring, your leadership results, your physical health, and the culture 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.
If some people have a green thumb, I’ve often said that she has a black hand when it comes to gardening.
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 easily become a cycle of searching and confirming.
But it works with positive things too.
I first learned about the importance of gratitude lists while leading meth recovery groups at the VA hospital in Reno, Nevada.
These dudes were “hardcore” about gratitude.
A group member had just lost his job due to relapse, was facing homelessness, 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 said—“Sounds like it’s time for a gratitude list.”
His comment landed with a harsh thud, but immediately snapped his peer right out of his 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 every day.
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 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! (See 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 good 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.
In fact, The American Psychological Association lists employee appreciation as one of the top 5 qualities of a psychologically healthy workplace.
As a leader, if you don’t keep good people around you by expressing your gratitude, your leadership will wither and die. And you need to model it if you want your team to do it for each other.
If you are weak on gratitude, you must learn to make it part of your DNA—for your health and well-being, for your relationships, and for your workplace impact.
Multiple studies have suggested that just establishing a “thank you culture” is a powerful factor for productivity and profit. One study at 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
- Shows the team you “see” their contributions
- 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 others.
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 is like dumping super-fertilizer on your marriage and parenting.
Thank your partner.
Model a thankful spirit for you kids.
“People will forget what you said. People will forget what you did. But they will never forget how you made them feel.” –Maya Angelou
Turn information into action:
Pick one of these things to do today, then make it a habit:
- Thank every member on your team for something specific.
- Establish a gratitude ritual around the family dinner table.
- Make the longest gratitude list you can come up with.
- Before bed, ask your partner for “two wins” from their day.
- This year my wife bought a gratitude tree online that we decorate for the entire month of November.
- If you pray, begin every morning with a prayer of thanksgiving before asking God for anything else.
Have a great weekend!
*If you have enjoyed Parker’s Blog, check out The Next Peak Podcast where Parker Co-hosts every other episode.
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- Positive Psychology Website
- Great Forbes article on gratitude in the workplace
- Optimism reduces the risk of early death:
- The reticular activating system (RAS) and how it works https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=QCnfAzAIhVw
- Harvard Health: In Praise of Gratitude