Remember What Your Mother Taught You about Gratitude A group of clients dropped in on our office the other day. One of them had their seven-year old son in tow and while he was well-behaved he was obviously bored. We have a collection of marketing and trade show trinkets including a box of rubber band balls with our company name on them. In a lull in the conversation I grabbed one and offered it to the young man. As he reached to receive the gift I offered, his mother posed a question. What was this maternal prompting? As you may have guessed she asked, “What do you say?” The expected answer was, “Thank you.”
Just how powerful is gratitude? Gratitude is a virtue that contributes to living well. It is an emotional state and an affective trait demonstrated in behavior and as such it has tremendous potential for engaging change in how a person experiences life or determines the meaning of their circumstance. It is a positive emotion that has more recently captured the imagination and eye of researchers because of the mediating role gratitude plays in other positive emotions and overall mental health.
What role does gratitude play in how we shape our thinking or our success or our failure? Can the practice of gratitude actually make a difference in how we experience life? Can acts of gratitude alter corporate cultures and increase productivity and the bottom line?
Gratitude Acts as a Pathway to Expand a Sense of Meaning and Purpose
Why is gratitude important? Does the significance of experiencing and expressing gratitude survive childhood into adulthood? Gratitude occurs when we recognize someone has intentionally done something for us that is beneficial to us. The ability to recognize what others do for us is dependent upon a consolidation of a sense of self as a causal agent understanding that others are causal agents as well. This sense of self-awareness and awareness of others is called an “internalized theory of mind” that understands that other people (like oneself) are intentional beings whose behavior is motivated by desire and belief. This fundamental grasp of selfhood and sense of others formulates in children at around age 4. Without this internalized theory of mind a person becomes narcissistic.
Narcissistic individuals disdain gratitude because of an inflated sense of their own superiority – is it any wonder then that our mothers are so adamant about teaching thankfulness? Narcissistic people view expressions of gratitude as little more than attempts to curry favor or weakness – an unnecessary emotion that distracts from the need to perform expected tasks. In contrast to the extreme self-sufficiency inherent in narcissism the experience and expression of gratitude requires the ability to relinquish some self-sufficiency to see the actions of others and to acknowledge that no one really lives independent from the beneficial actions of others.
Is it any wonder then that Paul equated the act of gratitude with the discovery of God’s will? (1 Thessalonians 4:17-18) It takes a sense of self related to others and aware of others including God to come to an awareness of deeper meaning and purpose in life beyond the satisfaction of one’s own immediate and self-absorbed impulses.
Emotions like gratitude are not the same as sensory pleasure or mood. When talking about emotions researchers refer to multi-component response tendencies that reveal themselves over time. Emotions are rooted in how a person defines the meaning of some event in what Lazarus (1991) called the personal environment relationship or adaptational encounter. Defining meaning consciously or unconsciously triggers a series of response tendencies that influence how a person experiences the event. It is not the event itself that leads to emotion as experienced by the person in their facial expressions and physiological changes. It is the meaning assigned to the event by the person that result in emotional reaction to the event.
The interaction between belief, interpretation and experience is what makes the study of emotions and positive emotions in particular so important in understanding whether (1) a person can decide to alter their emotional state; (2) can support new behaviors over time and (3) can experience appreciable or measurable psychological and physiological benefit. If there is a relationship between a person’s belief (how they assign meaning to events) and their emotional state and if their emotional state influences their choice of behaviors in response to triggering events then the possibility of influence the belief triggered by events opens the door to influencing the range of responses expressed by the person to those events. This is precisely why positive emotions and gratitude specifically has been the subject of research.
What is Gratitude?
Gratitude is a sense of appreciation and joy that arises when an person receives a tangible benefit provided by another person or source who has intentionally acted to improve the beneficiary’s well-being. Gratitude is also the experience of a moment of peaceful enjoyment evoked by natural beauty. Gratitude assumes a personal nature when the benefactor is another individual or it may assume a transpersonal nature when the benefactor is God or the cosmos. Fitzgerald (1998) takes the definition a step further identifying three aspects of gratitude: (a) appreciation for another, (b) a sense of goodwill toward that person or thing and (c) a disposition to act that flows from a sense of indebtedness.
How does Gratitude Change Us?
Gratitude is an adaptive perspective that engages continuous personal development. Fredrickson (2004) asserts that gratitude broadens an individual’s mode of thinking and builds psychological and social resources. Hence gratitude broadens and builds a person’s momentary thought-action repertoire (the power to grasp and analyze ideas, cope with problems and manage an increasing degree of complexity).
The term “thought-action repertoire” refers to the spontaneous character of emotion. Thoughts (ideas or interpretations of events) actually lead to specific action. In negative emotions such as the recognition of danger (the thought) leads to an immediate fight or flight response (action). In contrast to negative emotions that yield quick action, positive emotions tend to challenge our assumptions or beliefs allowing us to alter our thought patterns and hence develop other responses. It is possible to alter emotional response by altering the belief behind the emotion. Hence it is possible to change the degree to which one experiences gratitude by engaging exercises designed to leverage awareness of the benefit one experiences either through the intentional actions of others or through apparently providential circumstances at work.
Gratitude is a powerful and critical force in personal survival and growth. Grateful people show (or develop) a different perspective on life that some researchers describe as a positive memory bias. A positive memory bias means that a person not only recalls a greater number of positive memories they reframe unpleasant experiences more positively over time as compared to the initial emotional impact of those experiences. People who exhibit a state of gratefulness are more alert, enthusiastic, determined, attentive and energetic. Fredrickson (2004) asserts that the benefits gained in emotional episodes of gratitude are durable i.e., they stick with a person. For example:
- Grateful people rebound faster emotionally from negative events.
- Vaillant (1993) theorized that adaptability in life is the ability to replace bitterness and resentment with gratitude and acceptance.
- The willingness to practice gratefulness even in the face of life’s greatest disappointments is critical to boundary processing in personal growth. Boundary experiences are those events that force a person to move to depth in their skills, perspectives or self-awareness to continue in and grow in effectiveness.
Gratitude literally prompts people to engage their environments and take part in activities that are adaptive – i.e., push the boundaries of experience and insight in such a way as to build new thought-action repertoires that can be called upon later in more stressful situations.
The Way People Experience Gratitude Varies
Gratitude is a complex emotion. Thus people experience gratitude in different ways. Research suggests that gratitude is an emotion experienced in a combination of facets including intensity, frequency, span and density. Understanding these facets helps to (1) recognize the depth to which gratitude impacts perspective and behavior and (2) suggest ways to develop a state of gratitude through the practice of appreciation and reflection.
Gratitude intensity describes the degree to which a person feels gratitude in the experience of a positive event. An intensity scale recognizes that people experiencing the same positive event may not experience the same degree of gratitude.
Gratitude frequency measures the number and types of events that elicit a report of gratitude. Some people report gratitude for in the simplest act of politeness while another may consider such simple acts as insufficient to call for gratitude.
Gratitude span refers to the number of life circumstances for which a person feels grateful at a given time. Someone with a strong grateful disposition reports gratefulness for family, job, health, and life itself as well as a list of other benefits. A person with a lower span of gratitude reports gratefulness for fewer aspects of his or her life.
Gratitude density refers to the number of persons to whom one feels grateful. Such persons may include parents, school teachers, tutors, mentors, friends and God.
Consider your own experience of gratitude. Take a moment to rank your gratitude quotient by assigning a level of experience to the facets of gratitude above. Use the number 5 to show a strongly felt occurrence of each of the facets above and the number 1 to show an absence of experience in each of the facets above. While the results of this informal self survey are anecdotal they indicate the degree to which you are aware of how others benefit or positively impact your life. If your score is low ask yourself how others experience you – are you present in these relationships? Do you see what others have done for you? Do you express gratitude for their actions? A practice of gratitude could yield some important changes in your relationships at work and at home.
Does Practicing Gratitude Make a Difference?
So why would one actually practice gratitude? (Other than assuring your mom does not show up at work or a social engagement asking the question, “What do you say?” when others act in ways that are beneficial to us.) People who practice gratitude find that gratitude creates the urge to:
- Engage reciprocity with creativity
- Build and strengthen social bonds and friendships
- Act altruistically
- Act faithfully with obligation
Conversely those who do not express or experience gratitude exhibit the opposite characteristics. The urges associated with the practice of gratitude occur in every aspect of a person’s behavior: social, physical, intellectual and spiritual.
In addition to the interpersonal benefits of gratitude grateful people also experience intrapersonal benefits of gratitude. In an experiment conducted by McCraty et al (1995) subjects who consciously experienced appreciation for 5 minutes actually reduced stress as exhibited in heart rate, pulse transit time and respiration rate. Clearly the practice of gratitude makes a quantifiable difference in how people perform and how they experience life.
How Does Gratitude Work if you are a Leader?
Gratitude engenders organizational transformation and performance by encouraging positive emotions that reverberate through others. A leader’s positive emotions predict the performance of their entire group.
Gratitude as expressed by a leader is dependent upon the leader’s recognition of his or her follower’s intentional benevolent actions. Remember that people experience gratefulness as a complex interaction of intensity, frequency, span and density. Observing and probing a leader’s experience of gratitude offers an insight into the degree to which their experience and expression of gratitude may influence group behavior.
Team observations made by Losada (1999) concluded that those teams that flourish show the highest ratio of positivity to negativity and the broadest range of inquiry and advocacy. Teams that experienced extreme negativity calcified after such encounters and lost their behavioral flexibility and ability to question. They ended up floundering in limited thought-action repertoires centered on self-absorbed advocacy. Fredrickson (2004) notes that when “…positive emotions are in short supply, people get stuck. They lose their degrees of behavioral freedom and become painfully predictable. But when positive emotions are in amply supply, people take off. They become generative, creative, resilient, ripe with possibility and beautifully complex.”
Gratitude prompts people to engage their environments and take part in activities that are adaptive. The broaden and build theory of positive emotions (Fredrickson 2004) hypothesizes that positive emotions actually produce health and well-being and not just mark or signal health and well-being. Gratitude is an adaptive perspective that engages continuous personal development. Gratitude enhances organizational transformation and performance. Finally gratitude is an interpersonal and intrapersonal experience that benefits the social, psychological and physiological health of those who are grateful.
Test these observations yourself by practicing the exercises below. Let me know the results. I want to hear back from you.
Exercise 1: Recalibrating Your Thinking. Identify three things that happened today for which you are grateful? (e.g., a coworker’s extra effort, an employee’s extra effort, a friend’s feedback, or a spouse’s feedback etc.)
Exercise 2: Transform your Experience. One technique utilizing a behavioral-cognitive approach to learning gratitude encourages a four-step process: (a) identify non-grateful thoughts; (b) formulate gratitude-supporting thoughts; (c) substitute the gratitude-supporting thoughts for the non-grateful thoughts; and (d) translate the inner feeling into outward action. (If this seems too simplistic review the Stockdale paradox described by Jim Collins, “I never lost faith in the end of the story,” he said, when I asked him. “I never doubted not only that I would get out, but also that I would prevail in the end and turn the experience into the defining event of my life, which, in retrospect, I would not trade.” Admiral Stockdale said this on his time as a prisoner of war in Vietnam.)
 Emmons and McCullough (2004:88)
 B.L. Fredrickson. “The Broaden-and-Build Theory of Positive Emotions.” Department of Psychology,University of Michigan, 7 August 2004, 1375.
 Jim Collins. Good to Great: Why Some Companies Make the Leap and Others Don’t. (New York,NY: Harper Collins, 2001), 85.