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The Neuroscience of Gratitude — And How to Encourage It in the Workplace

Britt Andreatta January 1, 2020

I just returned from a trip to Taiwan and Japan, and was struck by how the fall season is naturally a time of gratitude. Many cultures around the world have traditions or holidays that celebrate the bounty of the fall harvest or the changing of the seasons. Giving thanks is something we share, probably because it is rooted in our biology. In fact, UC Berkeley’s Dr. Summer Allen states, “… studies suggest that gratitude is an intrinsic part of being human, part of the very building blocks of human biology.”

Neuroscientists have found that gratitude activates different areas of the brain, including those affiliated with forming social bonds and assessing the moral intentions and actions of others. In addition, gratitude creates a feeling of reward in the brain, which is enhanced in people who are more grateful. To learn more about your own level of gratitude, take this 20-question gratitude quiz from UC Berkeley’s Greater Good Science Center (or scroll to the end of this article).

Several scientists study gratitude, including Robert Emmons and Michael McCullough. They define gratitude as a two-step cognitive process: 1) “recognizing that one has obtained a positive outcome” and 2) “recognizing that there is an external source for this positive outcome.” In essence, gratitude is about expressing thankfulness — it’s the state of being grateful, being appreciative of benefits received. Some researchers further distill gratitude into three types:

  • a trait, which is one’s overall tendency to have a grateful disposition,
  • a mood, or the daily fluctuations in overall gratitude, and
  • an emotion, which is a temporary feeling that one may feel after receiving a gift or a favor.

Fifteen years of gratitude research have highlighted the many benefits of gratitude. While many of us give thanks before we dig in to our holiday meal, we may not yet be harnessing the powerful benefits that gratitude brings to all parts of our lives year round. Studies show that gratitude plays a major role in psychological wellbeing including making us happier, calmer, and improving our relationships.

Gratitude can also “buffer” us from life’s challenges. Studies show that gratitude improves the quality of sleep, reduces stress, and increases our sense of wellbeing. It also has a protective factor, boosting our immune system as well as helping us recover more quickly from traumatic events like heart attacks, natural disasters, and mass shootings.

Gratitude has also been shown to lower levels of drug use and can help people recover from addiction, which could be a powerful tool in shifting the national epidemic. It also has been proven to reduce depression as well as suicidal thoughts and actions.

The Power of Gratitude in the Workplace

So how do we bring these benefits into our lives and workplaces? It’s easier than you think, but the most important thing to do is to make it a regular practice. Dr. Ryan Fehr at the University of Washington studies gratitude in the workplace, working with managers from tech giants like Microsoft and Amazon. He says that that the first rule is to create a gratitude habit, which is “a stable tendency to feel grateful within a particular context.” We all certainly can do this for ourselves, and I encourage you to think about how to establish your own personal habit (I’ve listed some options below).

Dr. Fehr goes on to say that when organizations take the time to help their employees develop a gratitude habit, it can shift the culture in powerful ways, where “persistent gratitude is shared by members of an organization.” This leads to increased engagement, retention, positivity, and even better health.

Three Research-Backed Tips for a Grateful Workplace

Here are five strategies you can implement to increase gratitude.

1. Start Meetings with Gratitude

Instead of starting a meeting with introductions or project updates, ask people to share something they are grateful for. This not only helps people get to know each other, they will also become more present and less stressed. It’s almost impossible to stay flustered or worried when you authentically express gratitude for something. It actually shifts our biology, lowering blood pressure and releasing dopamine and oxytocin.

2. Engage in Acts of Appreciation

We live in a culture where it’s common to point out problems but rare to highlight the positive. When was the last time you expressed gratitude to your colleagues for a job well done or the gifts and talents they bring to the team? How often do you comment on the positive qualities of your family members or neighbors without adding a “but” or request at the end?

All of us hunger to be seen and heard so take time to tell someone what you value about him or her. If we express our gratitude for another person to that person, she or he gets a positive boost. At work, this can yield all kinds of benefits. According to Dr. Camille Preston, “Gratitude builds engagement and trust, increases retention and results in higher quality work.” How can you make expressing gratitude to others a regular practice? Consider using online tools or smartphone apps for coworker appreciation. Or put up a bulletin for kudos, stocked with colorful post-it notes and pens for ongoing expression. Or build a time into project meetings for people to appreciate others, perhaps particularly for something accomplished that week.

Here is another simple option: encourage thank you notes. Written notes are so rare these days that they have become highly valued. Case in point, one senior executive at a Silicon Valley tech giant hand wrote notes of appreciation to each of their top performing engineers. People felt so honored that, over time, this specific initiative drove higher engagement scores and retention levels. Buy a box of thank you notes and see what happens when you send them.

3. Look for the Impact

Several studies show that when we can see the impact of our efforts on others, we can feel gratitude and enjoy the many health benefits it provides. People in the helping professions, like first responders or health care workers, can often directly see the impact of their efforts. But regardless of our specific jobs, all of us do things that impact others, whether it’s making the project go smoothly, or supporting a coworker who is having a bad day, or playing our specific role in the mission or vision of the organization where we work. Managers and senior leaders can help make this last connection more clear, by talking about the successes of the organization and the impact it’s having in the world. One way to do this is through “voice of the customer” programs, which can be as simple as posting customer letters on a bulletin board to creating elaborate video documentaries about customer stories. In addition, organizations can support employee volunteerism and demonstrate corporate responsibility through a variety of programs like adopting a local non-profit organization, participating in neighborhood cleanup activities, and providing donation fund matching. The goal is to help every employee see the good work they participate in.

4. Get More Mindful

The benefits of gratitude and mindfulness are so closely aligned that scientists call them “sisters.” Mindfulness practices can take many forms from yoga to meditation and from a formal sitting ritual to just washing the dishes. When you combine them, by doing a meditation on gratitude for example, the positive impact is even stronger. Dr. Richard Davidson at the University of Wisconsin has found that mindfulness can alter the brain in significant ways (check out his book Altered Traits). A study at Harvard Medical School found that meditation can alter the physical composition of the brain, actually shrinking the amygdala, making it less reactive to anxiety and stress.

5. Keep a Journal

Study after study has shown that keeping a gratitude journal can be an easy way to build a regular practice. Results from two separate research studies found that participants who kept a gratitude journal reported better physical health (e.g., lower blood pressure, fewer headaches, less stomach pain, clearer skin, as well as reduced congestion, sore muscles, and nausea) in as little as two weeks.

I keep a gratitude journal by my bedside. Every night I write three things I am grateful for — either from that day or from life in general. Because our jobs can be so stressful, I think it’s important to bring gratitude into our workplace, so I make a point of having at least one thing be about work. This practice has brought an additional benefit of helping me wind down after a busy day and sleeping more peacefully.

One of the things that I am always grateful for is this network of like-minded professionals. I am thankful that we have this opportunity to connect with each other, learn together, and support one another.

Take the Gratitude Quiz:

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