We’ve all been encouraged to feel more grateful. But in today’s fast-paced life, we can find ourselves perpetually focusing on what’s next at the expense of recognizing the beauty around us. The rise of the smartphone means that we could always theoretically be responding to work emails. When we scroll through our Facebook timelines, it’s easy to compare ourselves to other people’s highlight reels and feel we aren’t enough.
But could taking just a couple of minutes out of our busy days to practice gratitude make us more successful? Is there measurable backing behind the idea that gratitude is better for us?
Research shows that this powerful emotion can heighten health, happiness, and productivity – at home and in the workplace. Today, we’re unpacking the psychology of gratitude, explaining how it works, and giving you tips for how you can cultivate it for yourself.
The word “gratitude” comes from the Medieval Latin word for “thankfulness.” While there’s no single psychological definition of gratitude, leading researchers Robert Emmons and Cheryl Crumpler describe it as “an emotional response to a gift. It is the appreciation felt after one has been the beneficiary of an altruistic act.”
Gratitude has a social valence to it. It connects us with other people, life, and depending on our belief system, a higher power. We might feel it when the person in front of us in line spontaneously pays for our coffee, or when a friend checks in on us unexpectedly during a hard time. We’ve all probably felt it after having a win at work and being reminded why we do what we do.
In his book Thanks!: How the New Science of Gratitude Can Make You Happier, Emmons breaks down that emotional response into two stages. He shares:
“First, gratitude is the acknowledgment of goodness in one’s life. In gratitude, we say yes to life. We affirm that all things taken together, life is good and has elements that make it worth living. Second, gratitude is recognizing that the source(s) of this goodness lie at least partially outside the self. The object of gratitude is other-directed… This is one significant way in which gratitude differs from other emotional dispositions.”
In other words, gratitude is a process of seeing and metabolizing what we already have – amidst the chaos of our schedules – which helps us feel connected to other people and life. We can feel grateful about something thrilling (for example, a promotion at work) or smaller scale gifts that we haven’t noticed before. Less obvious gifts, like the kindness of the people who make your coffee every morning or the person who always remembers to empty the trash, are all around – but we never seem to notice them, let alone be thankful for them.
How gratitude impacts us
Sure, feeling grateful might be calming in the moment. But can cultivating gratitude change the course of our lives at work?
Research in the field of positive psychology offers strong evidence that both feeling and expressing gratitude positively influences our emotions and health, and can inspire those results in others. One study showed that when we express gratitude to our partners, the partner is more likely to feel positively towards us and communicate about concerns in the relationship. Another showed how managers who expressed gratitude to their employees generated 50 percent higher productivity. These findings upend the idea that people are motivated to work or change as a way to move away from a negative emotion, like the fear of being reprimanded by a boss or criticized by their partner. Perhaps we’re more productive when we’re appreciated.
On an individual level, feeling grateful fosters stronger romantic relationships and makes us happier and healthier, in part by inducing the relaxation response in the body. In one study, researchers explored the impact of keeping a gratitude journal, finding that journaling about what we’re thankful for could have a variety of physical and emotional benefits. In the first of three studies, participants were randomly assigned to three groups: those who wrote about life hassles, another group wrote down things they were grateful for, and the third group tracked neutral life events. They journaled weekly. In the second study, participants were assigned to the same three groups but were asked to journal daily. In the third study, a group of participants with neuromuscular disease was randomly assigned to either the gratitude condition or a control one.
After ten weeks, participants who journaled about what they were grateful for on a weekly basis reported being 25 percent happier versus those participating in the hassle condition. They exercised an average of 1.5 hours more, and reported less physical symptoms (like headaches, shortness of breath, and chest pain). Journaling daily produced even greater increases in happiness, and the participants with neuromuscular disease assigned to the gratitude condition reported getting more refreshing sleep and a more optimistic outlook on their lives versus the control condition. And more happiness and better sleep aren’t just nice-to-haves: these factors make us, among other things, more focused and productive.
While these studies don’t prove causation, they highlight that we should practice cultivating gratitude and see what works for us.
Pro tip: Track your gratitude by keeping it in Evernote. Snap a picture to remind you of what you’re grateful for, jot it down on either your computer or mobile device, or use our “Daily Re-charge Questions” template. For a quick mood-booster, review what you’ve written.
Practicing gratitude at work
Expressing gratitude has even been shown to create positive shifts at the office. One study, conducted by the University of Pennsylvania, set out to explore how perceptions about our value at work (in this case, by managers) impact behavior on the job. Researchers randomly divided participants – who were university fundraisers – into two groups. The experiments showed that when managers expressed appreciation for the employee’s work, productivity went up significantly. For example, one group of participants received a “thank you” pep talk before starting work. That group made 50 percent more fundraising calls than their peers who didn’t get thanked.
The idea that expressing gratitude creates a positive cycle – where the person showing thankfulness feels good and the person being appreciated does, too – is an important one for managers, leaders, and culture builders. It’s too easy to focus on what needs to be accomplished (by definition, what’s lacking) rather than acknowledging what we already have. But failing to acknowledge workers has a clear impact on productivity and job satisfaction.
Gratitude in action
- Keep a daily gratitude journal. Research suggests that spending just five minutes per day writing down what you’re grateful for can increase your sense of well-being by about 10 percent. If you journal at night, you’ll conclude the day on a relaxed note, which can help you get deeper sleep and work more effectively. Plus, you’ll train your mind to notice things to be grateful for throughout the day. You can also keep a digital gratitude journal in Evernote and record what you’re grateful for throughout the day.
- Buy a box of thank you cards and send them out regularly. Appreciate your mom helping with the kids this weekend? A team member who went above and beyond during a launch? Your friend who helped you through a tough situation? Sit down and write them a note. This practice will help you relive what you appreciated and others feel more fulfilled. Through expressing gratitude, we can inspire happier, more positive emotions in others.
- Find ways to discuss what you appreciate about your colleagues. It may sound obvious, but celebrating your fellow team members both lifts them up and inspires them to continue doing the good stuff. You could publicly thank people in meetings, or send a “Thanks so much for your help” email, or simply mention what you appreciate in conversation.
Feeling and expressing gratitude isn’t just the “right” thing to do – it creates a ripple effect of more health, happiness, and effectiveness in the office and at home.