Updated: May 12, 2020
Perform your job more effectively.
Feel more satisfied at work.
Get more help from your co-workers.
What if there was a simple exercise you could do for a few minutes a day that could do all of the above? Sounds like another click-bait title for the next popular fad that pops through your feed, but there’s some serious science to back up that claim, and it all starts with a little gratitude.
Most of us have some intuitive sense of what gratitude is: to be thankful. Beyond that much it is often vague and hard to define; is gratitude an emotion, a virtue or is it a behaviour? It can mean different things to different people, in a range of different contexts.
Our first hint that gratitude is more than just another fad comes from our evolutionary history. We know from research that gratitude is not just a modern concept. It is deeply rooted in our DNA, there are specific areas of the brain devoted to it, and it emerges behaviourally from a very young age.
Why would we possibly have evolved to need gratitude?
Because animals rely on a social behaviour known as “reciprocal altruism” to help them survive. This is where one animal performs a behaviour for another member of their species, often at a cost to themselves, because they recognise that the other animal may repay the favour at a later date. Gratitude evolved as a mechanism to drive this prosocial behaviour; turning strangers into friends and friends into allies.
That is why gratitude is a fundamentally social phenomenon. It is the “social glue” that inspires us to be more generous, more kind, more helpful. It strengthens the relationships between individuals in a way that is hard-wired into our brain.
Being grateful doesn’t just facilitate social cohesion, it also carries a host of benefits to the individual themself. Having a more grateful disposition, that is a greater tendency to be grateful, has been linked to greater happiness, more positive emotions, lower levels of materialism, less burnout or fatigue, and
greater overall life satisfaction.
To have such an overwhelmingly positive influence sounds like a pipe dream. But it is founded in another principle of our evolutionary history. Our brains are naturally wired to look out for danger. In a modern world, especially say a daily office grind, this means our attention is easily drawn to the negatives around us. Over time this constant negativity compounds into a state of both physical and mental languishing. Gratitude exercises are designed to re-train this pattern of thinking, helping you focus on the positives by forcing you to stop and consciously seek them out.
A simple yet profound example of the powers of a simple gratitude exercise can be found in cardiac patients who were asked to keep a daily gratitude journal. After only a few weeks they were found to sleep better, suffer less fatigue but most surprisingly they actually showed lower levels of inflammation in their cardiac cells! Even schoolchildren who engage in the same activity show improvements in mood and engagement during class as well as being more helpful to other students and teachers.
Does this really translate into the workplace?
The handful of studies completed in a workplace setting have suggested that gratitude exercises DO help employees perform their jobs more effectively, feel more satisfied at work, and act more helpfully and respectfully toward their co-workers.
So in the same vein we’ve been getting the new year off to a grateful start! Every week here at FBS we have each been writing a letter of gratitude to someone else in our head office. We then read out the letters we received throughout the week to our team during our weekly Monday lunch.
Sounds like a simple little exercise, but here are a few key ideas when showing gratitude:
It’s easy to say something vague like “I’m grateful for your help” but we’re trying to re-train our brains here! Instead of looking for the easy or the obvious, look hard, be specific, and find something that’s hard to see. It’ll help you improve the focus of your attention toward more positive aspects, and it will also be more meaningful to the person receiving it!
Sometimes it can be hard to think of something you “like” about a person, especially if it’s someone you don’t know very well. But remember that you don’t always have to like someone in order to admire or respect some quality about them, so just be honest! When people are honest it signals respect to the person receiving your comments, which will in turn foster trust between people. How sincere someone thinks you are is the single biggest factor that affects how beneficial expressing sentiments of gratitude are.
Always be on the lookout for new things, even if they may seem small or insignificant. We want your brain to be on alert for those little moments of gratitude, so let's get creative!
Simply sharing your sentiments of gratitude with other people magnifies their positive
effect. Whether you’re expressing gratitude toward someone else, or just sharing the things that you are grateful for, incorporating some social aspect into your gratitude exercise can be incredibly powerful.