The scientific benefits of gratitude

As we celebrate Thanksgiving this week, I challenge you to fully immerse yourself in this season of gratitude. Giving thanks feels good, but those warm, fuzzy feelings don’t just happen by accident—research studies show that gratitude is directly associated with greater happiness, health, and overall well-being. The simple act of giving thanks has remarkable benefits.

In one study, conducted by Robert A. Emmons, Ph.D., at the University of California at Davis and his colleague Mike McCullough at the University of Miami, participants were randomly assigned one of three tasks. Each week, participants kept a short journal. One group briefly described five things for which they were grateful from the past week, another recorded five hassles that occurred in the previous week, and the neutral group recorded five events or circumstances that affected them, but they were not told whether to focus on the positive or on the negative. After ten weeks, those who wrote about gratitude were more optimistic, felt 25% happier than the hassle-focused group, exercised more, and faced fewer health challenges. 

Intentionally practicing gratitude generates positive emotions, which in turn help us better connect with others and more capably deal with adversity and stress. Here are a few easy ways to practice gratitude:

  1. Keep a daily journal of three things for which you are grateful.
  2. Make it a daily practice to tell a colleague, friend, or family member something you appreciate about them.
  3. Go around the dinner table, taking turns to share one thing from the day for which you’re thankful (it doesn't have to be major—my two-year-old’s almost constant response to this question is “candy” and her entire mood lifts when she gets to share this answer).
  4. When you look in the mirror while brushing your teeth, think about something you have done well recently (gratitude for your own talents is critical).
  5. Send a thank you note monthly to someone (bonus points for in-person delivery!).
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Beyond the impact on one’s well-being, gratitude also has a powerful influence on workplace dynamics. In organizations where practicing gratitude is a priority, employees feel more positive, experience less stress, feel more confident in their ability to achieve goals, use fewer sick days, communicate higher job satisfaction, and show a stronger desire to help coworkers. All are highly valuable benefits, but let’s dive deeper on the last one regarding a stronger desire to help coworkers. Studies show that grateful employees, as well as those who receive frequent gratitude, are more concerned with social responsibility. In other words, they perform more “organizational citizenship”—kind acts that aren’t part of their job description, like welcoming new employees or filling in for coworkers. The recipients of those kind acts are then motivated to do the same...and so begins a ripple effect that can transform workplace dynamics. 

Leaders have an opportunity to kickstart this ripple effect. Employees feel motivated to work harder for managers who remember to say "thank you". Researchers at the Wharton School at University of Pennsylvania randomly divided university fundraisers into two groups. One group made phone calls to solicit alumni donations in the same way they always had. The second group—assigned to work on a different day—received a pep talk from the director of annual giving, who told the fundraisers she was grateful for their efforts. During the following week, the university employees who heard her message of gratitude made 50% more fundraising calls than those who did not. 

We often think of organizations as transactional places where it’s unprofessional to incorporate things like gratitude, forgiveness, or compassion, but evidence suggests that these things create workplace environments where employees actually want to work. We are human after all, even when at work.

As we seek to weave gratitude into our organizational cultures, we must do so thoughtfully. It’s easy to recognize strong employee performance, but cultures that truly value and practice gratitude do so much more. They engage with employees at a “whole person level”—valuing who they are, not just what they do; caring about their ideas, values, talents, goals, and challenges, not just their performance.   

In my next post, I’ll share tips on how to effectively drive this culture of gratitude within your organization. But for now, during this week of thanksgiving, I encourage you to simply rest, reflect, and count your blessings. 

Abbey Louie

Abbey uses over a decade of talent management experience to help organizations drive business results through enhanced employee engagement. She is passionate about empowering individuals and teams to be their best. She's also a mom to two sweet girls, a wife to one good man, and a fan of running and hosting dinner parties.