We are all generally aware of the benefits of gratitude—which include a more positive outlook on life, and even physical benefits such as a reduction in the symptoms of stress. Especially as we approach the Thanksgiving holiday, we make a mental note to be more grateful. Less appreciated, however, are the potential organizational benefits of practicing gratitude.
A summary of the science of gratitude by the Greater Good Science Center at UC Berkeley sheds light on how being grateful can improve both performance and culture in the workplace. Formal research into gratitude is a relatively new field. In 2000, there were only three peer-reviewed articles on the subject.
Fifteen years later, there are hundreds of such papers. Of particular interest to business leaders is research on what social scientists call “upstream reciprocity”—basically a fancy way of talking about paying it forward.
Gratitude connects us
When someone is nice to us, and we return the favor, that is a form of direct reciprocity that we expect. However, it turns out that people who are the recipients of acts of kindness and thoughtfulness, and who make a point of feeling grateful, are also more likely to help a third party.
The ripple effects of that kind of indirect reciprocity are a powerful tool for business leaders looking to build a strong organizational culture.Robert Emmons is the world’s leading scientific expert on gratitude. As he points out, feeling grateful is a two-step process. First, we recognize the presence of something positive in our lives. Second, we acknowledge it comes from an external source, often another person.
Gratitude involves a humble recognition that we are interdependent, that we need one another. In this way, gratitude can become a kind of “social glue” connecting not just individuals, but organizations. One study suggests the potential for organizations to “institutionalize” gratitude by making such expressions part of workplace culture.
The authors note a “significant relationship between gratitude and job satisfaction” and suggest that “organizational leaders can boost job satisfaction by regularly prompting grateful emotions.”
This is your brain on gratitude
In its summary of the benefits of gratitude, Berkeley’s Great Good Science Center cites recent research showing how feeling grateful enhances functioning in regions of the brain governing social bonds, and our ability to read others. Moreover, even though we think of gratitude as an emotional state, it also enhances cognitive functioning and decision-making.
In one study, writing gratitude letters produced measurable brain changes that lasted months after the intervention.This research confirms Barbara Fredrickson’s assertion that gratitude has a “broadening” effect on how we think, and at how we look at the world. It allows us to “discard automatic responses and instead look for creative, flexible, and unpredictable new ways of thinking and acting.”
When we are grateful, we are more inclined to seek support from others, to reframe challenging situations through a positive lens, and to engage in creative problem-solving.
Gratitude is a kind of mindfulness
It is no accident that the benefits of gratitude resemble those of mindfulness. Both practices ground us in the present. If we are thankful for what we have, we are less likely to ruminate over the past, or anxiously anticipate the future.
Gratitude is similar to mindfulness in another respect as well: it helps increase our resistance to stress. As one researcher states, it is an extremely effective way “to fill the resilient tank.” Other research finds that gratitude acts as a natural anti-depressant.
We are just beginning to tap into the benefits of deliberate gratitude. Organizations that practice gratitude will attract and retain top talent and create a culture conducive to innovation and thriving.
By Naz Beheshti