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The Role of Gratitude at Work

By on September 7, 2007 – 5:46 pm  11 Comments

Kathryn Britton, MAPP '06, former software engineer, is a coach working with professionals to increase well-being, energy, and meaning in their work lives (Theano Coaching LLC). She is also a writing coach, facilitator of writing workshops, and teacher of positive workplace concepts at the University of Maryland. Her own books include Smarts and Stamina on using positive psychology principles to build strong health habits and Character Strengths Matter: How to Live a Full Life. Full bio. Kathryn's articles are here.



Giving Thanks

Giving Thanks

There are many facets of work and life in general that we do not control. But we can increase our control over our own responses to them. One way to raise our overall level of well-being even in the face of trouble and stress is to practice and grow stronger at being grateful.

Lyuobomirsky, Sheldon, and Schkade (2006) argue that one’s chronic happiness level is determined partly by a genetic baseline or set point (50%), partly by circumstances (10%), and partly by intentional activity (40%). Practicing gratitude is an intentional activity that can make a real and ongoing difference in chronic happiness levels. Emmons and McCullough (no date) report that people who conduct certain gratitude exercises are healthier and feel better about their lives, make more progress toward goals, are more optimistic, and are more likely to help others than people in control groups.

So how do we increase the level of gratitude we experience in our jobs and our lives? Here are a few suggestions:

  1. Pay attention to good things, large and small. This often requires intentional thought because bad things are more salient to us than good things. For example, I have a friend in his 80’s with arthritis in his hands. He becomes aware of it whenever he knocks something over or has trouble picking something up. I suggested that whenever he finds himself saying, “My poor crippled hands,” that he follow it with “My magnificent legs that let me walk every day without cane or walker.” That does not mean ignoring the painful or disabled. It means balancing it with occasional thoughts of how lucky we are to have so many working parts! We have to work a little to give the positive thoughts space in our brains.
     
  2. Pay attention to bad things that are avoided. I recently tripped over a small stump and fell flat on my face during a practice hike to get ready for our trip to the mountains. When I picked myself up, I was very grateful to have only a deep bruise on my thigh, no broken bones. It will take a while for the gorgeous 8 inch bruise to go away, but I can still hike. Thank goodness!
     
  3. Practice downward comparisons. That means thinking about how things could be worse, or were worse, or are worse for someone else. I don’t particularly like the idea of making myself feel more grateful by thinking of others who are worse off than I am. But it doesn’t have to be interpersonal. You can use downward comparison by remembering your own times of adversity or being aware of adversity avoided. The poet, Robert Pollock, said it thus: “Sorrows remembered sweeten present joy.” Here’s a work example. I have two friends who recently moved into the same department in the same company. One is relieved and happy because the situation seems so much better than before. The other is dissatisfied because the teamwork characterizing the old job is no longer there. The first has an easy time with downward contrast. The second will have to work a little harder to find reasons to be grateful.
     
  4. Establish regular times to focus on being grateful. Gratitude is a character strength that can be enhanced with practice. So practice. Marty Seligman describes two exercises in Authentic Happiness, the Gratitude Visit and a form of keeping a gratitude journal. The efficacy of gratitude interventions has been studied with clinical populations by Duckworth and colleagues and student populations by Sheldon and Lyubomirsky.
     
  5. When facing a loss or a difficult task or situation, remind yourself to be grateful both for what you haven’t lost and for the strengths and opportunities that arise from facing difficulties. Tennen and Affleck found that benefit-seeking and benefit-remembering are linked to psychological and physical health. Benefit finding involves choosing to focus on the positive aspects of the situation and avoiding the feeling of being a victim.
     
  6. Elicit and reinforce gratitude in the people around you. Negative moods are catching, but positive ones can be as well. The character, Pollyanna, helped other people see the benefits in their situations by teaching them the Glad Game. Sometimes, having someone else see what is good in your own life makes it visible to you.

Gratitude is a character strength admired around the globe. To increase gratitude, a good first step is to notice the good things that happen to us, large and small. These practices can help us take fewer blessings for granted.

This is not the first Positive Psychology News Daily article on the subject of gratitude, and it won’t be the last. I invite you to look at other articles on the subject, including (not exhaustively)

Your Life Metaphor Matters by David J. Pollay
Generosity, Empathy, and Moral Philosophy in Airport Conversations by Iris Marie Bloom
Gratitude at the Bridge House by Nicholas Hall
The Energy of Gratitude by Caroline Miller
The Happy-Well: Positive Psychology Tips for Living Well and Longer by Sherri Fisher
 


 

References

Aaronson, L. (2006). Make a gratitude adjustment. Psychology Today Online.

Duckworth, A. L., Steen, T. A., and Seligman, M. E. P. (2005). Positive psychology in clinical practice. Annual Review of Clinical Psychology, 1, 629-651.

Emmons, R. & McCullough, M. E. (no date). Highlights from the research project on gratitude and thankfulness: Dimensions and perspectives of gratitude.

Emmons, R.A., & McCullough, M.E. (2003). Counting blessings versus burdens: Experimental studies of gratitude and subjective well-being in daily life. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 84, 377-389.

Lyubomirsky, S. (2008). The How of Happiness: A Scientific Approach to Getting the Life You Want. New York: Penguin Books.

Lyubomirsky, S., Sheldon, K. M., & Schkade, D. (2005). Pursuing happiness: The architecture of sustainable change. Review of General Psychology, 9, 111-131.

Seligman, Martin (2004), Authentic Happiness: Using the New Positive Psychology to Realize Your Potential for Lasting Fulfillment. New York: Free Press.

Sheldon, K. M. & Lyubomirsky, S. (2006). How to increase and sustain positive emotion: The effects of expressing gratitude and visualizing best possible selves. Journal of Positive Psychology. Special Issue: Positive Emotions, 1(2), 73-82.

Tennen, H. & Affleck, G. (2003). Benefit-finding and benefit-reminding. In C. R. Snyder & S. J. Lopez (eds.), Handbook of Positive Psychology. 584-587. New York: Oxford University Press.

Image
giving thanks courtesy of TheAlieness GiselaGiardino

11 Comments »

  • Senia says:

    Kathryn,

    I really appreciate this article because given the many concepts in Pos Psych I have a little bit of a tepid attitude towards gratitude, probably because it often seems so general to me. I much prefer specifics, and reacting to specifics.

    I REALLY like your suggestion #3 even though at first glance it may appear strange – to practice downward social comparisons… research just really does show that this is extremely valuable as a copuing technique and a mood booster. I especially like your suggestion – that it doesn’t have to be a downward social comparison of you versus the Joneses. It can be you versus a previous version of you.

    I really like your concrete suggestions here because often people – including me – can imagine being grateful and thankful for those things that DO exist, but it’s harder to be grateful for those yucky things avoided. And that’s why your suggestion #2 and your example about just having a bruise and being able to continue hiking is a great example.

    Also, killer reference list.

    Thank you.

  • […] Dr. Emmons is one of the people I cited in my recent Positive Psychology News Daily article on intentionally practicing gratitude as a means of becoming happier at work. […]

  • […] So, what can you do if you’re someone who thinks the grass is always greener? Firstly, you can limit your exposure to comparisons. Secondly, regularly take the time to count your blessings and savour the good things in life. Instead of concentrating on what you’re missing out on, think about what you’ve got: in particular the friends and family who we often take for granted, but who really make the difference between a happy life and an unhappy one. To quote Marcel Proust, “Let us be grateful to people who make us happy; they are the charming gardeners who make our souls blossom.” […]

  • Sevgi Guney says:

    Dear Kathryn
    I like your suggestions. They are so realistic and applicable.
    Person in the street in my country sees the positive psychology as a kind of “polyanna” game. Is that true? Not really. As thinking positive is only one aspect of positive psychology. So I can say the fact that thinking positively in one side is a the “glad game” of polyanna. By glad game, one can easily recognise what she/he have in her/his hand and can easily rescue himself/herself from negative focus and/or whirlpool. On the other side Polyanna makes the people recall somehow “fantastic pink glasses”. Unfortunately “pink glasses” itself recalls mostly the fact that people deceive themselves and ignore the realistic clue.
    I agree all your suggestions. I, for example, spontaneously using them also. They all works. When I first read an article from possitive psychology once upon a time I said by myself ohh my goodness I have been using these. I have known Prof.Dr. Martin Seligman’s Learned Helpness and Learned Optimisim theories from my clinical psychology degree but I did not know the positive psychology science in detail.
    We should teach your suggestions to the first of all the education professionals such as high school, primary school teachers, instructors, school counsellors etc. Since thinking positive is a kind of processing phenomena and is taken shape by experiences. Our children can easily learn “to think positively” by their socialisation process. To achieve this goal we have to include positive psychology courses in the psychology departments of the universities. There is no positive psychology course in my country’s psychology department of the universities. Although it is not included yet in the curriculums at the turkish universities I have a strong hope that one day it will and the day is not so late.
    Thank you for your meaningful and informative article,

    Sevgi Guney
    Clinical Psychologist
    Ankara University
    Ankara/Turkey

  • […] The Role Of Gratitude At Work There are many facets of work and life in general that we do not control. But we can increase our control over our own responses to them. One way to raise our overall level of well-being even in the face of trouble and stress is to practice and grow stronger at being grateful. […]

  • […] Taking Positive Psychology to Work: The Role of Gratitude by Kathryn Britton (9-7-07) […]

  • […] As any fan of this website would do, I turned to positive psychology for an answer. Gratitude is one of the most researched and most lauded strengths investigated by the field (e.g., Gratitude – The Secret to Getting Back Up, Taking Positive Psychology to Work: The Role of Gratitude, The Energy of Gratitude), and it has no better place in American culture than today; Thanksgiving is Gratitude Day! My set of Thanksgiving traditions, albeit cosy and harmless, was missing meaningful and personal gratitude. So this year I set out to establish a new Gratitude Day tradition: to compile a list of one hundred things I am sincerely grateful for within the past year. […]

  • […] Kathryn Britton wrote that one of the most important concepts of gratitude is being grateful for those bad things that did not happen (like falling during a hike and bruising, but not having a broken leg – being grateful for having the leg) – just reading this in Kathryn’s article changed my thoughts about the concept of gratitude. […]

  • […] Downward comparisons can be very useful for enhancing gratitude. That means thinking about how things could be worse, or were worse, or are worse for someone else. Jesse’s gratitude comes partly from thinking of the hobos who showed him that having a home and enough food to give some away was something to be grateful for. It also comes from remembering being cold and working hard. According to the poet, Robert Pollock, “Sorrows remembered sweeten present joy.” These experiences from more than 70 years ago have cast a very long gratitude shadow. We came to Idaho from Tennessee in 1935 when I was 6 years old with hope of finding a better life. … All that we brought to Idaho with us was what we could cram into the car. It must have been so hard for mother to have to leave so many treasured things behind. 5 of us made the move, my mother, an aunt, an uncle, a cousin, and myself. Years later I asked my cousin if we camped out. He laughed and said, “No, we just drove and picknicked with a loaf of bread, bologna or cheese and crackers.” We moved to Kimberly, Idaho that fall and into another one room house across from the railroad tracks. Being close to the tracks we had our share of hobo’s knocking on our door looking for a hand out or anything to eat. Though we had little I can remember that my mother always found something to share with them. Our house was just a framed building with no insulation and the winters were really cold. I would walk along the tracks looking for coal that had fallen off of a coal car and sometimes a hobo would toss coal off. Kimberly had a dance hall called “Shadowland” and several name bands played there. After a dance I would get up early the next morning and walk around the building and hunt for beer bottles which I could sell. Once in a while I would find some change or even a bill. I sold the Saturday Evening Post and the Grit magazines and mowed lawns with a really hard to push reel mower with a grass catcher. The money earned was turned over to my mother to help buy groceries. We made our own entertainment by playing basketball, baseball or football when we could find a ball to use. … We also played what we called field hockey. We would use a Sego or Morning Milk can for the puck and what ever for the stick. It was a hard life but I think it was a good time to be growing up. I’m sure it made us appreciate anything that we were able to obtain later in life. […]

  • Who should we be thankful to? Ourselves? We should be thankful to other people of course, but to whom can we trace every good thing in life that we enjoy?
    The Bible says, “Every good gift and every perfect gift is from above and cometh down from the Father of lights in whom is no variableness neither shadow of turning.” We owe all the good that we have to God. Have you thanked Him lately?

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