The gratitude challenge
“Most people return small favours, acknowledge medium ones and repay greater ones with ingratitude.” – Benjamin Franklin
A study which began in 1986, of a group of nuns from the city of Mankato in the US, who have outlived many others, has astonished the world. The most surprising result of this ‘Nuns of Mankato Study’ by David Snowdon, is the discovery that the way we express ourselves in language, even at an early age, can foretell how long we’ll live and how vulnerable we’ll be to Alzheimer’s decades down the line. Snowdon found that the nuns who had expressed the most positive and gratitude-based emotions in their writing as girls ended up living longest, and that those on the road to Alzheimer’s expressed less gratitude and fewer positive emotions. His conclusion: If you want to live longer, be positive and show gratitude.
Throughout history, gratitude has always been high on the list of virtues. Cicero, the Roman philosopher ranked gratitude as the chief of all virtues, parent to all others. I concur with Cicero and apparently science does so too.
Research by Jeffrey Froh, shows that habitually grateful people have more energy, optimism, social connections and happiness. They’re less likely to be depressed, envious, greedy or become alcoholics. They earn more money, sleep more soundly, exercise more regularly and have stronger immune systems.
Science can now prove that gratitude improves psychological, emotional and physical well-being. “A lot of these findings are things we learned in kindergarten or our grandmothers told us, but we now have scientific evidence to prove them,” Froh adds. If gratitude does all that, why is there absolutely no focus on it in business or in our lives?
A few weeks ago, we erected a ‘Gratitude Board’ in our office, and some began excitedly posting messages of gratitude to others. Others scoffed at the board, shaking their heads at why others were posting soft mumbo-jumbo messages. And again, I wondered, since gratitude is scientifically proven to make employees more productive, why do people scoff at its usefulness and its place in business?
What is gratitude?
Gratitude means counting your blessings, being thankful, and acknowledging everything that you receive. It is living your life as if everything were a miracle, being aware incessantly of how you have been blessed by others. Gratitude shifts your focus from what your life lacks to the richness that is already present.
As simple as it sounds, gratitude is actually a multifaceted emotion that requires “self-reflection, the ability to admit that one is dependent upon the help of others, and the humility to realize one’s own limitations,” claims Emmons, another gratitude researcher. Gratitude is not for the “intellectually lethargic.” Emmons postulates that gratitude is discordant with feelings of victimhood or entitlement. “Far from being a warm, fuzzy sentiment, gratitude is morally and intellectually demanding. It requires contemplation, reflection and discipline. It can be hard and painful work.”
Emmons, together with psychologists McCollough experiments confirms gratitude results in higher reported levels of alertness, enthusiasm, determination, optimism, creativity and energy. Additionally, grateful people are more likely to help others and faster progress toward achieving personal goals. The study revealed that practicing gratitude increases happiness levels by around 25%. If only we could improve happiness levels at workplace by 25%, we may be on to unleashing a high performing team capable of achieving great results. Aren’t these the type of people we need in our businesses?
Gratitude cures materialism
Froh’s research team found that the more grateful students had more friends and higher GPAs, while the more materialistic had lower grades, higher levels of envy and less satisfaction with life. “One of the best cures for materialism is to make somebody grateful for what they have,” adds Froh.
Founder of Berkshire Hathaway, Warren Buffett, one of the richest men on earth, ascribes part of his success to his grateful nature. He has frequently expressed his gratitude for having been born at the right time and place and for the wealth that he has been able to create. Even though he is rich, he has not an ounce of materialism in him, and he shows his gratitude by giving back his accumulated wealth to society.
Gratitude brings happiness
A few years ago, as part of our Talent Acceleration programme, we took a group of Malakoff high-potential talent to visit the LaFarge factory and to meet their CEO, Biyong Chungunco. Biyong, is an incredible leader, who is well-loved by her employees. As she spoke to our team, she showed extreme humility and gratefulness in every aspect of her life, in spite of having so many obstacles thrown her way. Having lost her husband and having to face tremendous issues being a woman in a male dominated industry, her positivity drove her to succeed against the odds.
Listening to her reinforced my belief that if we are to reach happiness (which is the goal for many people), gratitude needs to be a core virtue we practice. We tend to forget that happiness doesn’t come as a result of getting something we don’t have, but rather of recognising and appreciating what we do have.
Being grateful also forces people to overcome what psychologists call the “negativity bias”—the predisposition to dwell on difficulties, frustrations and inequalities rather than positive blessings. One time, I interviewed Marshall Goldsmith, a top business coach for The Leaderonomics Show. Throughout the interview, Marshall kept repeating his gratefulness of how good things happened to him ‘by accident’. Being grateful keeps him positive and when you are in a positive frame, positive things tend to happen.
Watch my interview with Marshall Goldsmith: