At first, gratitude might not seem like an emotion that fits naturally or comfortably into your workday — though it should. On an individual level, gratitude is one of the most leveling qualities available to us. It extends both inward and outward: When we’re grateful for what we have — not just in material ways but for our relationships, skills, anything — our relationships with ourselves, with others, and with the world comes into sharper focus.
In stressful situations, gratitude can be especially powerful. As Arianna Huffington writes in Thrive, “Grace and gratitude have the same Latin root, gratus. Whenever we find ourselves in a stop-the-world-I-want-to-get-off mindset, we can remember that there is another way and open ourselves to grace. And it often starts with taking a moment to be grateful for this day, for being alive, for anything.”
When we do take that moment to be grateful, science shows, we experience tremendous benefits. In one study published in the Academy of Management Journal, researchers asked participants to take a few minutes at the end of the day to write down a list of three things that went well that day and why they went well. They found that “a brief, end-of-workday positive reflection led to decreased stress and improved health in the evening.” Other studies show a range of physical benefits, including improved sleep quality, and a study of Swiss adults found that gratitude correlated positively with self-reported physical health. As Robert Emmons of the University of California, Davis, and Michael McCullough of the University of Miami, two of the foremost gratitude researchers, put it: “A life oriented around gratefulness is the panacea for insatiable yearnings and life’s ills.”
Gratitude is also a gateway to emotions and behaviors that not only benefit you, but positively affect those around you. A study published in the journal Psychological Science found that those who demonstrated gratitude were more likely to help others, even when that help came with a cost.
Bolstered by all this new research, gratitude has emerged as a definitive leadership trait — one that can make leaders more effective and inspire their teams to new heights of performance. As Dacher Keltner, Ph.D., a professor of psychology at the University of California, Berkeley, wrote in The Harvard Business Review, “When teaching executives and others in positions of power, I focus on three essential practices — empathy, gratitude, and generosity — that have been shown to sustain benevolent leadership, even in the most cutthroat environments.”
When leaders embrace gratitude, employees and the organization as a whole benefit. In a survey published in the Harvard Business Review of 195 leaders in 15 countries, Sunnie Giles, a certified executive coach, found that leaders who nurture growth among their employees can help create a culture of gratitude and improved performance.
With all this research showing just how powerful gratitude can be, let’s look at how you can put it into action and make it a part of your workday routine.
Make gratitude a talking point
Workplace conversation often consists of complaints and negative comments: “I’m so tired,” “I’m so busy,” “How will I make it to Friday?” If we replace these phrases with a more positive practice — one that promotes feelings of gratitude — physical and psychological benefits can follow. Research has shown that after 10 weeks of writing about what they were grateful for, individuals were more optimistic, felt better about their lives, exercised more, and had fewer visits to the doctor compared to those who wrote down their daily frustrations. This shows that how we think, and ultimately what we say aloud and write down, has a tangible impact on how we feel. Try incorporating simple statements of gratitude every day at work, for things both big and small: “I’m so grateful that my manager showed patience with me,” or even “I’m thankful that the sun is out today.” Grateful statements can promote a positive workplace environment by replacing pessimistic small talk.
Say thank you and let others know they are appreciated
Although saying “thank you” might sound too simple to have an impact, it can actually do wonders for workplace performance. Research has also shown that employees who have managers who thank them for their work feel more motivated to work harder. Furthermore, giving compliments in the workplace, or letting others know they are appreciated can also enhance performance and social interaction. Reinforce gratitude by letting others know they matter and the work they do matters, too.
Visualize your gratitude
People “who intentionally cultivate gratitude show greater neural sensitivity in the medial prefrontal cortex, a brain region associated with learning, rational thinking and decision making,” which can be especially helpful in the workplace, Ellie Cobb, Ph.D., told NBC News. Creating visual reminders of the things you are most thankful for is a great way to cultivate gratitude throughout the day. Try writing down three things you are grateful for on your way to work, and keep the note with you in your pocket or phone case to glance at throughout the day. Keep photos of family, friends, or your pet on your desk to experience a bit of gratitude when you look up from your computer. Small visual reminders can keep a steady stream of gratitude flowing throughout your day.
Although it might be challenging to channel feelings of gratitude during a stressful workday, it is possible with a shift in intention and perspective. What’s more, you will feel more motivated to practice honest behavior and be productive, even throughout the hardest parts of your day.
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