The Science Behind an Attitude of Gratitude

December 22, 2017 - 17 minute read - Posted by

“It’s the most wonderful time of year.”

Is it though?

I’m not sure how you are feeling right now but here are some of the thoughts currently floating through my head…

  • “I’ll worry about paying off my credit cards next year…”
  • “Those 2018 KPIs are looking like Mt Everest right about now.”
  • “If you are what you eat, I can safely say I am a glazed ham with a side of poutine.”

And the number one thought plaguing me right now?

“I. Am. Exhausted!”

I’m tired, overfed, overwhelmed and need more money.

Even though I’m a highly-sociable, food-appreciating shopaholic, the amount of ‘Christmas cheer’ at this time of year sometimes proves too much. Christmas does not always evoke those positive feelings of “joy” or “happiness” for everyone.

It’s just a feeling.

My partner often says that line to me “JUST A FEELING.” And for years now, I’ve been questioning how an Accountant (him) and a Psychologist (me) could be in a relationship given how unbelievably ridiculous and unhelpful this line of thought is.

This week it happened again. I caught myself verbalizing some pretty negative stuff to him after a long day of achieving nothing yet feeling like I had run a marathon. I was feeling the Christmas blues.

True to form, in an effort to make a joke, that line came up again.

And for once, it sank in that in fact; this IS just a feeling. And having studied this stuff for years in psychology, why didn’t I realize this?!

But then, it  triggered something for me

The problem is that these days, we get kudos for displaying no emotion or pretending we have none.

We consider them “fluffy.”

We become so disconnected from how we feel that it often takes someone else to tell us we are misbehaving or making poor decisions for us to realize how we feel. We ignore our emotions, thereby letting them run amuck with our behavior.

But, should we be turning off our emotions, or can we use them to our advantage?

In the words of “The Martian,” we’’re going to have to “Science the s^*t out of this.”

The Science of Emotion

The science of studying emotion is a seriously fascinating field. Psychological research in emotions has defined around 27 categories of emotions alone (ref https://globalnews.ca/news/3734531/27-different-emotions-study/).

More importantly, we may not realize that each emotion we experience drives our decision making and actions every day.

Without being aware of our emotions, we could be making a poor decision; at work that could be trying to negotiate a raise or deal with a problematic employee. The types of situation that have long felt effects.

So, ignoring our emotions is kind of backward huh?

We’re so used to doing it. If you don’t believe me, think about the mindfulness movement. One of the key benefits is to regulate our emotions and to reconnect with how we feel. We are striving so hard just to connect with ourselves again.

It ’s considered a revelation to undertake mindfulness for 10 minutes out of the 1440 minutes we have in one day to identify and get in sync with our emotions.  (Check out this talk on 10 mindful minutes – one of my favorites: https://www.ted.com/talks/andy_puddicombe_all_it_takes_is_10_mindful_minutes)

The point I’m making is this, emotions matter and identifying which emotions are driving how we think, and act are just as important. Believe it or not, a lot of the time we have a choice or at least a degree of influence over how we manage those emotions that may be taking over. Especially when it comes to the emotions that supersede others, the emotions that act like dominoes, that start a sequence of events.

When you are noticing or mindful of your own emotions, what’s interesting is to watch out for those types of emotions. One of those is gratitude.

Now, before you think I’m about to go on about a “spoonful of sugar” to help the Christmas carols go down, I’m not. In the research I’ve conducted, the results have shown that negative emotions are just as important as the positive ones when it comes to triggering specific outcomes and behavioral change. However, they are not always easy to manage.

Anyway, onto my love affair with gratitude. But, none of the hippy stuff. Let’s science.

Why is gratitude so cool?

Let’s first make sure we are on the same page with what I mean by “gratitude.”

Harvard Medical School defines gratitude as “a thankful appreciation for what an individual receives, whether tangible or intangible. With gratitude, people acknowledge the goodness in their lives … As a result, gratitude also helps people connect to something larger than themselves as individuals – whether to other people, nature, or a higher power”

Another, a more straightforward definition goes a little like this:

“a social emotion that signals our recognition of the things others have done for us” (Fox et al., 2015).

The more I read about gratitude, the more I realize that this positive emotion has a whole host of flow on positive effects and outcomes for literally everyone involved. Here are some of the reasons gratitude is very cool.

  • Gratitude drives “networks of good” to pay it forward. While a recipient of a grateful act may not reciprocate to you directly, they are likely to pay it forward and do a good deed by expressing their gratitude for someone else (Chang, Lin, & Chen, 2011). Talk about making an impact!
  • Helps you make better decisions. Compared to other emotions (i.e. happiness) or no emotions (i.e. neutral state), the emotion of gratitude enhances your self-control by allowing you to make better decisions. (DeSteno et al. in 2014)
  • Gratitude aids social connection and is referred to neuroscientists as a social emotion linked with the areas of our brain associated with value judgments, rewards, and our morality. n (Fox et al., 2015).
  • Gratitude fosters well-being. Practicing gratitude can decrease levels of depression and anxiety (Kashdan & Breen, 2007). Other studies have shown that athletes who practice gratitude experience stronger wellbeing (Wood, Froh & Geraghty, 2010 ) as do participants recovering from breast cancer (Ruini, 2012) and recovering from heart failure (Mills, ‎2015) and significantly reduces production of the stress hormone cortisol (McCraty and colleagues, 1998)

In a nutshell, people with an “attitude of gratitude” experience lower levels of stress, higher levels of wellbeing, make better decisions and essentially foster a culture of “good” for those around them.

And even better, gratitude is contagious! What’s not to love?

Give the gift of Gratitude this Season (it’s good for you & others too!)

The very nature of this holiday is supposed to invoke a time for social connectedness and appreciation for others. If this is truly the case, then I think gratitude might just be a great antidote to the dreaded ‘Christmas blues.’

Whether you’re at work, at home or running a business and are trying for your team, you can combat those Christmas curveballs by fostering an attitude of gratitude.

And guess what? It’s really good for you too.

Here are a few tips for fostering an attitude of gratitude this merry season.

Tip #1: Don’t ignore negative emotions. Learn how to recognize them and ensure they don’t get the best of you.

It is so easy to “go to the bad place” when you hit that negative spiral. But as I said earlier, negative emotions play an important role in having a balanced approach to your mental health and wellbeing.

In every workplace coaching program, the topic of resilience pops up yet most people don’t know their warning signs for hitting rock bottom. It’s easier to intervene before you fall than after you hit the ground.

One tried, and true approach I take with clients is systematically working through a “traffic light” system where we identify our green zone (optimal “you”) and red zone (overdrive, out of control “you”) look like. We then literally hash out the behaviors at each end.

For example, the green zone might be “I ask more questions and am more considerate of others’ responses” and “I find it easier to get to the gym twice a week.” Compared to their red zone which is “I don’t know what day of the week it is” and “I become snappy and find myself yelling at my partner and kids when I get home.”

This is the point at which, we get to the good stuff which is this: What does your “orange zone” look like? As in, what are your warning signs?

Your orange zone is the point at which you can intervene yet because these behaviors or emotions are less extreme than say, your “red zone” behaviors, you are less likely to notice them until it’s too late. Once you’re in the “bad place” (i.e. the red zone). It is much harder to come back.

Take some time to understand your warning signs. If you have no idea, I always find that the best way to find out is to ask a close family member, a close colleague or partner (just make sure you are prepared to be open to their responses!).

Tip #2: Start focusing on the good stuff. Reflect on what you are grateful for.

Time is one of the most precious resources we have. In fact, studies have shown that one of the biggest blockers for helping others is a perceived lack of time.

Naturally, we also then don’t take too much time to reflect on the good things in life either. When you do find yourself reflecting on past events, the human brain loves to ruminate and focus on only negative information (i.e. that embarrassing moment when you walked into a glass door).

Gratitude is like a muscle that needs to be built up to gain strength.

Make a little routine to reflect and even document the good things that happen.

Researchers have even shown that you can improve your relationships significantly by documenting all those thoughtful acts you receive from others to foster your feelings of gratitude to them (Algoe et al., 2010).

For example, my sister’s family have a gratitude box that each family member contributes to.  They open the box on International Gratitude day, September 21st, and spend some time as a family reflecting on all the things they have felt grateful for over the last twelve months.

Tip #3: Give the Gift of Genuine Recognition.

As a follow-on, when you document those behaviors, don’t just keep it to yourself.

Spread the word.

Let people know that you value their contributions and recognize them for it. We now know that not only will you reap the benefits of increased well-being, those you are grateful to are likely to pay it forward and spread the cheer.

To enhance the impact of these gestures, studies have shown that when you actually recognize how that person’s actions impacted you, you are likely to experience more happiness than others who perhaps do not.

In one study, these findings held true for participants for a full month after expressing their gratitude to people! A month of elevated happiness for a little thoughtful recognition (Seligman, Steen, and Peterson, 2005).

This got me to thinking about how my organization fosters an attitude of gratitude through our own recognition program. At 7Geese, we recognize our one another all the time using our core company values of Growth, Excellence, and Positivity.

As a relatively new member of the flock over here, I would be lying if I didn’t say that those at the moment, thoughtful recognitions I have received haven’t lifted my spirits and given me a spring in my step during the last couple of months. I pretend to act cool when I get them but secretly I am over the moon.

As a company, our appreciation for the efforts of others recently reached a point where we needed to create a new value called “Lending a Hand” to recognize each other for even more of those thoughtful acts that helped us achieve goals above and beyond our everyday roles.

Final thoughts

If you’re looking for more tips on expressing gratitude in your company through your recognition program, stay tuned for a paper by my very talented colleague, Ashleigh Myerscough on best practice recognition programs.