Why Gratitude Matters (& Happy Thanksgiving!)
The countdown to this year’s Thanksgiving feast is here, and although these days all our holiday dinners resemble feasts of enormous amounts of food, family members and yes, sometimes familial tensions, Thanksgiving was originally conceived as a gratitude feast. So it seems fitting that we might also want to give some thought this holiday season as to why exactly we are grateful and what is fulfilling in our lives. The reality for most of us though, is that by the time the holiday dinner leftovers have been consumed, we quickly return not just to home, but to our status quo of feeling lucky mostly in fleeting thoughts as we read about the recent calamities profiled in the news.
Why should you be grateful, anyways? While there are wonderful spiritual reasons, I’m an executive leadership coach so let’s focus on the pragmatic side of why gratitude matters; science points us to the fact that a regular gratitude practice is one very simple way to become happier. And if you’ve been following me, you’ve heard my frequent (data-driven) mantra that happier people are more successful, creative, insightful, better problem solvers and superior team leaders.
Why is it hard to be consistently grateful? The reason turns out to hinge on our basic biology. When we were cavemen trying to avoid the woolly mammoths (or some other scary species), we had to be ever vigilant and on the alert. Survival of the fittest ensured our current tendency to regularly scan our environments for any possible negative consequences and dangers. And despite the fact that in our world, getting eaten by wild animals is a freak occurrence, we soldier on, still trolling for the bad.
Think about it, if your computer (like mine) has a tendency to bomb just as you’re about to hit send on a long, detailed email – you’ll curse with frustration and spend the next 20 minutes fretting about rewriting it. However, let’s say your emails all send easily, will you sit back and reflect on your good fortune? Not likely! You’ll move to agonizing about your direct reports’s latest missed deadline and worrying whether he’ll ever finish it and how to talk with him about his laxness.
Even the optimists among us are more likely to fixate on what didn’t work out rather than what did. The problem with this is that, as Professor Martin Seligman (founder of positive psychology) points out, we actually need a ratio of 5 times more positive than negative thoughts to flourish in our life and our work. Translation? You need to find ways to amplify the positive that you see around you if you want to be at your full leadership potential.
So I know you’re thinking, “Is there an easy way to be more positive, ’cause I’m pretty busy here!” Yes! Ample research shows gratitude practices, or simply a daily accounting of “What Went Well” (see practice below), can shift things up so successfully that it’s been used to effectively treat depression.
So in honor of the holiday season here in the US, I’m providing a couple of wildly easy gratitude practices that I’ve used with great success personally and in in my coaching work so that you can reap the psychological benefits of gratitude with very little effort.
WRITE GRATITUDE NOTES:
When was the last time you received and unexpected thank you note in the mail? Not often for me, but each time I have, it’s made my day! Sitting down and writing a one Thank You note (or email if you must) weekly is a great way to practice gratitude. You get to think about the positive interactions during your week in general to decide who to write, and then in more detail as you pick one person to single out. And then consider how you are making someone else’s day with your positivity and action.
(Side Note: Unintended benefit you might find is that people like to be around and work with people who are grateful and appreciative – nice leadership boost there!)
The second practice is the “What Went Well or Three Blessings Exercise”.
WHAT WENT WELL: (adapted from Seligman)
Record three things EACH DAY that went well (The What) and why they went well (The Why). This exercise should take 5 minutes or less and going with your first response is just right.
I recommend finding one notebook or opening a computer file where you can keep writing everyday so there is a visual record of your efforts.
(Ex: What? I got through 90% of my to-do list. Why? I listened to Jo’s amazing audio how to get more flow in your work life.
Or What? I had time to finish the newest budget. Why? My 2pm meeting had the flu so I got unanticipated work time).
The key with either of the above exercises, or any gratitude practice you undertake, is to keep it simple enough that you’ll actually do it. The cool part about the Seligman exercise is that research showed that even people who did it daily for just 2 weeks, still reaped measurable happiness gains 6 months later.
So try one out, commit to it daily for a few weeks, and watch how you (and your team) can benefit from these happiness boosters.